How COVID-19 challenges preconceived notions of African leadership

“The concrete consequences of underdevelopment are rampant, but underdevelopment is also a state of mind, and understanding it as [such] is the critical problem”. – Ivan Illich

In the wake of COVID-19, the world is slowly coming to terms with the long-term socio-economic impacts the pandemic will have on the globe. The most vulnerable societies continue to be those in the Global South, especially those in Africa. While the virus has been slow to spread throughout the continent, the consequences of prolonged lockdowns and a shrinking global economy will undoubtedly cause major disruptions in growth and well-being. In a context where one in three Africans, live below the global poverty line, thousands of livelihoods are under threat of being unhinged. However, while it remains important to unpack these shortcomings, it’s also imperative to keep in mind another key feature that continues to define Africa’s experience of the pandemic, agency.

The narrative on Africa in the ‘developed’ world has shifted significantly over the last two decades from that of a “hopeless continent” towards that of a “rising continent”. Yet while this remains a welcome transformation in the global discourse, international coverage of the pandemic has shown how limited external narratives can still be in capturing the positive and negative nuances of the contemporary African context. By the middle of February, the World Health Organisation had already identified several high-risk African nations where it was believed the virus was most likely to have a significant impact. When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported outside China; in neighbouring nations in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, headlines surfaced predicting the imminent catastrophes awaiting the African continent. It is not surprising that this kind of narrative is widespread given that Africa has become the poster child for famine, disease and poverty in the international imagination. However, what makes such a narrative so limiting is that it mistakes underdevelopment for impotence and affluence for invulnerability. Yet when global infection rates soared the first epicentres of the pandemic were not Lagos, Johannesburg or Addis Ababa, but London, Rome and New York.

Now that the world is cautiously entering a post-pandemic era there is a peculiar silence of Africa’s tentative success. While it would be foolhardy and premature to claim that Africa has indefinitely dodged the coronavirus bullet, the international narrative seems to be satisfied with merely assessing different vulnerabilities while failing to recognise the role that proactive governance and leadership have played in Africa’s response to the pandemic. In short, vulnerability alone does not tell us enough of Africa’s COVID experience. One of the most sought-after attributes during the pandemic has been sound leadership. In this regard Africa has excelled compared to many other regions of the world. In South Africa, where the impact of the virus has been most felt, President Cyril Ramaphosa has demonstrated a steadfast resilience in combating the outbreak and its repercussions on his nation and the continent at large. Ranging from community screenings, portable testing units travelling between the rural/urban peripheries and the delicately phased reopening of the country’s economy, we see a contemporary example of strong and intentional governance.

In Mauritius the government has also been lauded for the pro-social and proactive approach that it adopted in addressing the crisis, by drawing on its well-developed social welfare capabilities. It has also been highlighted that West Africa’s experience with the Ebola crisis has helped countries and societies in the region implement effective health regulations to manage the spread of COVID-19. These and several other examples of African nations who implemented lockdowns early, began to disseminate up-to-date information about the virus and promoted public hygiene measures according to World Health Organization standards, show the extent to which the continent, by and large, recognised that prevention was better than cure. The continent’s regional institutions such as the African Union (AU) have also shown swiftness in their responses. Even as early as the  3rd of February, nearly two weeks before the first case was reported on the continent, the Africa CDC inaugurated its continental task force to coordinate a collective response to the pandemic. In light of this swift and decisive leadership the regional Africa director for the World Health Organization (WHO) has accoladed efforts on the continent.

A second lesson to be drawn from the global pandemic is that ‘developed’ societies are not always models to be followed. Despite having Wuhan as an example of what negative impacts COVID-19 could have on societies, many nations, particularly in the West, underestimated their own vulnerability to the pandemic. In countries like the United Kingdom one of the major fault lines was arguably waiting too long before taking meaningful action. Seeing the utter devastation in European states like Spain and Italy around the end of February, one might expect urgency to be an important step in reacting to a crisis of such magnitude. Yet the UK only entered its steep lockdown on the 23rd of March, having already reached more than 11 000 confirmed cases. The European Union was also slow to realise the threat and severity of the pandemic in its response, only choosing to instate a travel ban within its border weeks after recording its first COVID-19 deaths.  In addition to these cases, across the Atlantic ample evidence also highlights the shortcomings of the US response, despite having the benefit of several early warnings to indicate the outbreak and being by far the most well-equipped to deal with the spread.

This has led many to question why so many leaders in the West have failed to manage the spread of the virus. Despite the abundant resources that these states have been blessed with, careless leadership choices and the lack of decisive action have rendered this wealth moot. What these examples from the ‘developed’ world thus show is the need to think beyond dichotomous and normative perceptions of developed vs developing and poor vs rich when framing the state of human progress. As much as these categories highlight real discrepancies in material terms, they fail to account for the role that agency plays as a defining feature of how nations are impacted by and respond to crises like COVID-19. It is not merely the least developed that suffer the most in times of crisis, but the ones least able to act and respond to change with clear-sighted intentionality. Failing to recognise this fact increases the risk of being blindsided by the novel threats of a fast-changing and increasingly unstable world.

While it remains true that Africa faces many developmental challenges, the rescue Africa narrative which has become so prevalent in the global sphere is severely lopsided. Africa’s limitations are only one variable in a deeper unearthing of events. While no response to the challenges brought on by the pandemic will prove flawless, the varied experiences of nations around the world emphasise that the resilience of societies cannot merely be judged by socio-economic development indicators or GDP  alone, but must consider a society's ability to act proactively in protecting its people from the uncontrollable and unforeseeable elements of the human condition. In this regard Africa’s unique place of ‘underdevelopment’ in the modern world has made it particularly accustomed to change and unpredictability. In the last two decades alone, African societies have been forced to endure many pandemics through diseases like HIV and Ebola, but also pandemics of war, pandemics of poverty and pandemics of gender-based violence. Yet in the post-colonial African landscape we have seen both growth and loss moving parallel to one another. Recognising this fact allows for far more nuanced insights into how this pandemic has tested the leadership abilities of African states.

While the continent’s struggle against its myriad of pandemics should not be romanticised, it does convey the resilience of Africa’s people, who have continued, against all odds, to survive, build communities and persistently endure amid hardship.  It is evident that political and social cohesion is the key to having a more reliable future that the continent can vouch. In this we find perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, that it's not the calamities of life that determine who we are but our responses to them.

State-level responses have dominated international headlines, but there is a global account of affairs that cannot go undermined. The COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a whirlwind of economic and political difficulties that the post-pandemic world order will need to face. But we should not overlook how the road to recovery can be one of international social cohesion and regrouping amid hardship. It’s important to move beyond the urge to merely point out what is exceptionally inadequate on African shores, but reconvene on what universal obstacles the world will face and what lessons the nations of the world can draw from one another. Ensuring that this happens is also a matter of leadership and the role of intentionality on the part of global leaders will become increasingly important in the months and years ahead, as the world navigates its way in a post-pandemic era.

There will always be societal ills to battle and the development discourse remains irreplaceable in finding solutions to these. Yet the arrival of COVID-19 has opened our eyes to the exaggerated dualities that have been normalised in our conceptions of the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds. However, to facilitate an open global dialogue on the future of our world, the international community will need to vaccinate itself against many biases and preconceived notions that no longer align with reality. Existing dichotomies that have persisted for decades must perish to make room for a more authentic globalized narrative. However, to achieve this aim, wealthy nations of the world will need to become more open about the vulnerabilities of their societies, recognising that the technology and comforts of modernity can never become a substitute for wise and intentional decision-making. Furthermore, the West in particular needs to work towards conscientizing itself about the extent to which it has othered the global South, and Africa in particular, through the paternalism of an inflated view of itself and its place in the world. Likewise, African leaders will need to do more to apply the proactive leadership they have been able to show during the pandemic in other areas of society that require prosocial change. This will undoubtedly help dismantle paradigms catering to the dichotomy of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ in the international imagination. African nations must also show intentionality in uniting around their common values and pushing for the continent to become a voice for equity, justice and human-centric change on the global stage.

In the end, the pandemic has shown us that there aren’t two worlds divided along development lines, but one world and one humanity faced with a common fragility. In building a new post-pandemic order that can truly address widespread discrimination, inequality, gender-based violence and international economic decline our responses must draw on the insights of all human societies, recognising both their shortcomings and their strengths. And as we head into a time of unavoidable hardship, but also a time of global reflection, the African continent which is no stranger to the struggles of the human condition, may yet have more to teach the world about surviving, leading and growing amid troubled times.

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