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22 March 2020 - Story

Now is the Time for Ubuntu

By Keith Kibirango

Regardless of what the numbers tell us and thoughts we may have regarding infection rates across Africa, we cannot confidently say we will not be as affected as other parts of the world. The low infection rate on the continent could be down to limited international travel, the warmer weather or insufficient testing. It is the lack of knowledge that should fill us with fear and dread.

I tend not to ignore scientists when they produce articles that talk about Africa sitting on a ticking time bomb. The World Health Organisation also calls for African leaders to wake up to a potential crisis. 

As of a couple of days ago, Africa had 529 cases, 13 deaths and 41 recovered: with the largest numbers in Egypt, Algeria and South Africa. This is relatively low when compared to other countries like China, Italy and Iran where the death role is in thousands. 

My argument is that this is only part of the story.

In all fairness, many African countries have put in place swift and drastic measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia have barred travel from high-risk countries like Italy, South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, United States, United Kingdom and China. Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon have shut down schools, restaurants and even reduced the number of people attending burials. Rwanda has filed its capital with portable sinks for hand washing in public areas. However, the devil is in the implementation which is proving to be the hardest bit.

For many African countries, policing the behaviour of their population is terribly difficult. From the crowded cities where people have to go to markets to buy food, travel in cramped public transport and, in most cases, there is no access to water points for hand washing. Poor infrastructure also means that there are some areas where public officials are hamstrung by poor roads to enforce any form of social distancing. It will be next to impossible to stop relatives from burying a dead one, often spending days in a small house in mourning. All this goes against the guidance of how not to behave if we are to limit Covid-19 infections.

In one African country, some folks have been seen to find ways out of a quarantine hotel provided at the airport.

What has this got to do with Africa philanthropy you may ask? 

We have had big announcements of support from Bill Gates and Jack Ma who have offered financial support and gifts in kind to fight the spread of COVID-19 on the continent. We are yet to see a similar commitment from African philanthropists who could make a difference in supporting governments that would be overwhelmed by a pandemic.

African governments have limited capacity to tackle the numbers currently seen in Asia, North American and Europe. With over 7,100 multi-millionaires, Africans are not lacking in the capacity to make significant donations to help tackle this pandemic.

Now is the time to address COVID-19 across the continent. We cannot assume immunity, nor can we afford to wait for the treatment phase which is far too expensive in terms of human cost and finance. As the World Health Organisation says, we need to act swiftly and act now. Our best course of action as Africa is prevention, prevention, prevention!

Africa’s philanthropists can help by providing financial assistance that will help strengthen our weak health systems, encourage behavioural change like self-isolation and improved hygiene. This is especially important in crowded spaces like slums, refugee camps and poorer settlements where buying soap may be out of the question for many.

African philanthropists can also use their position to make sure people take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. A message from a respected and influential person on social media can have much more impact than many government directives. By going on social media and encouraging washing of hands, respected African philanthropists can make a huge difference. Like sports personalities and rock stars in the West, these individuals can be so inspiring and are able to amplify the message. Finally any gifts in kind like the use of conference-call facilities and access to space for charities and health workers will help relieve the pressure on national health systems in many African countries, should there be more cases.

In my role as Head of Africa Philanthropy at Save the Children, I believe that together with African philanthropists we can do a lot in supporting our health systems and reaching the most vulnerable in our society. Despite the world focusing more on tackling COVID-19, for many vulnerable African children, there are still huge challenges of malnutrition, illness and lack of adequate protection from abuse. We can ensure that we are better prepared should there be an outbreak while also not compromising other impactful work that saves lives. We have to strive hard to stop COVID-19 from reaching our communities. 

This is the time for “Ubuntu” which translates as “humanity towards others” as our way of fighting COVID-19 across Africa by protecting and supporting each other.

This article was first published on Africa Legal on March 20, 2020