An Africa, social capital has traditionally played a vital role in coping with critical shocks such as death, floods, droughts or major expenses arising from weddings or funerals. It represents one of the most important and probably most convenient way to enable the survival of the poor at times when individuals, households and communities face hardship. Social capital is often referred to as the insurance of the poor since it is the main means of providing access to resources for those in poverty.
To exploit the potential benefits of social capital in filling the gaps which governments fall short of in safeguarding livelihoods threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, African governments have been calling for solidarity, asking each and everyone who has something to contribute to the ongoing efforts of resource mobilisation to cope with this global curse. In Ethiopia, for instance, the government is appealing to the “haves” to share their meals with the “have-nots”. At a time such as this in which everyone is a victim, will Africans make use of this incredible approach to mitigate the impact of the pandemic? COVID-19 has put the strength of the continent, in the form of social capital, to the test. This is expected despite the prevalence of poverty in Africa.
Africa’s hope will persist, for the continent has some advantages upon which it stands in fighting this pandemic and has the assurance of emerging victorious. Although a lot remains to be revealed, the aged appear to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19, as the number of elderly people being killed by the virus is soaring rapidly. However, more than 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people in Africa are below 30 years old (nearly 50 % of Africans are below 15 years of age).
This makes Africa a continent dominated by a youthful population. In addition, the late outbreak and slow spread of the virus could give Africa enough time to put in place appropriate precautionary measures and to learn from the positives in other continents. Reports from various African regions reveal an increase in the testing capacity of many countries, with the number of those testing for the virus having increased exponentially from 2 to 40 within a short time, thanks to the support of Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba group, and many other philanthropists.
While various responses to the COVID-19 crisis have been reported globally and locally, one really outstanding example is that of farmers who live on the outskirt of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Their action has been heart-warming, uplifting, soul-stirring and a reminder of the beauty of kindness in times of hardship. Most of these farmers do not have back accounts, while those who do may not have adequate cash deposits in the banks. The majority of the farmers depend on agriculture for their livelihood and produce crops and livestock on a subsistence basis.
In response to the above-mentioned appeal by the government for cash and in-kind support during this period of crisis, these farmers have generously and selflessly contributed a major share of their produce (cereals such as teff and maize) and cattle so that it can be deposited in a food bank created by the government following the outbreak. The contents of the food bank are redistributed to the needy. The surprising thing is that these farmers are the same ones who have been the victims of the city’s rapid expansion. Perhaps some of them are unwillingly losing a significant portion of their farmlands as the city expands.
While the plights and fears, anger and frustration expressed by these farmers over the loss of their land to authorities have been regularly ignored, this has not stopped them from showing solidarity and kindness to the vulnerable residents of the city who are likely to be on the brink of hunger in times of the COVID-19 lockdown.
The people to benefit the most from the generosity of the farmers are the poor working class who never had the capacity to evict them. The only thing these working poor do is work as casual labourers on some of the farmlands which are suddenly being turned into construction sites for apartments, condominiums, and business centres. These farmers remind us that sharing requires humility and kindness rather than having plenty. How beautiful this world would be if cruelty were replaced with compassion, greed swapped with generosity, egotism succeeded by altruism, and meanness substituted with kindness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the world is too small a place to be divided along different strata – income group, class, race or fortune. Instead, it has been created for all human beings to either cherish or perish together, to swim or sink together, and to uphold rather than crash one another.
COVID-19 knows no boundaries, ethnicity, colour or status. It is a threat to all. Whether living in a fancy city or the shanty slams, in a luxurious apartment in the New York or beneath a grass-touched hut or plastic roof cover in Mogadishu, in the Global South or the Global North, we are all equal. All boundaries set by humans based on wealth, power, social class, etc. have been defeated by COVID-19. No, it is not a respecter of disciplines – medicine, economics, geography, chemistry, biology, sociology, etc. – nor does it know morality. Neither is the virus a respecter of age, as it cuts short the life of infants, the youth and the aged. It is everywhere against everyone.
If the world could pay apt attention to the little whisper from COVID-19, we would realise that humans need humans regardless of wealth status to coexist and survive. It has exposed how we as human beings are vulnerable, fragile and desperately need one another for mutual existence. The pandemic has also proved that without cooperation and compassion at the heart of every human action, society and nations, we would not prevail for long. It is a constant reminder that we can overcome this and any subsequent pandemic only if we recognise and acknowledge how fragile we are and accept the fact that we are interdependent as humans. COVID-19 is bringing politically, spatially, ethnically divided citizens together locally even as it exposes their divisions.
Tekalign Gutu Sakketa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) of Bonn University, Germany.