Post-covid futures seen from Africa
How to think at the heart of a pandemic? Given the huge stakes of the Covid-19 crisis, we are all overwhelmed by a storm of information, drowned in a multifaceted discomfort that affects our ability to think critically. The social science and public health researchers that we are, are no exception. Perhaps, one of the biggest puzzles to grapple with is this: while HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis continue to kill millions of people every year without drawing all that much attention any longer, while the over 200,000 people – a large majority of whom young children – killed every year by gastroenteritis caused by norovirus leave us staggeringly unconcerned, here is a respiratory infection that is more virulent than the usual coronavirus cold and virtually the whole world is “put on hold”, governments all over impose lockdowns despite the predictable economic collapse, and the daily media count the dead in a gloomy ritual that drowns critical thought in a continuous flow of figures that are never put into perspective.
No doubt, while putting biologically and socially vulnerable groups most at risk, the Covid-19 pandemic shows that Europe and the United States are not – are no longer – sheltered from global public health catastrophes. Yet this is probably not enough to fully understand what is at stake. After all, in France alone, the ever-increasing cancer epidemic now kills over 157,000 people every year (that is more than 400 a day), and despite the existence of a vaccine the seasonal flu still kills about 60,000 people in Europe every winter according to the WHO. Yet, these epidemics do not cause any major social or economic disruption, nor do they draw public attention to an extent anywhere close to that given to Covid-19. The exceptionality of the SARS-2 pandemic therefore probably lies less in its mere magnitude than in the planetary reaction to it. These reactions, and their differences – or lack thereof – from country to country are perhaps one of the first lines along which to disentangle the situation.
How to think, then? A first step is probably to cross multiple perspectives and to not think alone – which is why we opened this space of collective reflection, where we can think out loud, propose each other’s ideas or tidbits, to make sense of this exceptional collective experience we are all unwillingly engaged in. We also propose to think beyond the immediate present, and fuel our thinking on post-Covid realities by critically engaging with a geographic and theoretical “elsewhere”: Africa. After all, the “catastrophe” that we are currently discovering in Europe and in the US is not so much an unknown to large parts of humanity, especially in Africa: medical triage, saturated hospitals, the rationing of tests, masks and drugs, anonymous burials without the presence of relatives, dismantled public health services…so many aspects of Covid-realities in the Global North are all to familiar to anyone with experience of African health systems. Not least through the plurality of situations and responses given to the crisis, Africa becomes a mirror to think of possible post-Covid futures in Africa, in Europe or in the US, beyond an, inexorable return “back to normal”, once this crisis “solved”.
From France, we get the impression that the next phase is mainly one of adaptation – be it social with physical distancing, digital with contact tracing and drone-based police intervention, or educational with the generalization of distance learning. Under the guise of innovation, a clear path emerges, from lockdown to a life of digital surveillance and home office, a life where domestic and professional spaces are increasingly blurred. Far from questioning capitalism as part of the problem, techno-capitalism is being touted as part of the solution. We would like contributors to develop critical perspective on the aftermath of Covid-19 by following a series of analytical pathways that can be observed on the African continent. In this sense, the renewal of care relationships, new collective mobilisations, the moral economy of giving, the integration of death into (public) life – at the hospital and beyond, the collective use of health resources, the improvisation of care when faced with shortages of biomedical materials, Africa as – yet again – a place of implementation of public policies designed elsewhere, the long-term consequences of emergency health aid, and many other subjects could be explored.
This perspective prompts us to draw parallels between spaces of socio-economic deprivation in the South and in the North. The goal is to listen to and look at what is happening in Africa, but also – by doing so – to think anew about certain aspects at the heart of the crisis – and the responses to it – in France, in the Global North and in Africa. How does the ongoing crisis affect, and is affected by, social inequalities, race and gender? Although presented as consensual by governments and most media, how do lockdown policies affect and often exacerbate structural injustices?
That being said, this initiative immediately confronts us with the difficulty of “thinking under lockdown”. If distancing is part of the social sciences methodology, imposed physical distancing poses a serious problem to our approach as it prevents us from using our favorite data-collection tool: our bodies, through which we create situations that allow us to observe, to discuss with the people involved, and not least to physically experience what a given social configuration does to us. How can social scientists work without actually doing fieldwork, the limited consolation of skype-interviews set aside? How can we make our thinking more than just a press review or anecdotal notes on social media content under lockdown? Defining one’s research object is a fundamental operation in the social sciences – today more than ever.
In this context, research experience in global health, political sociology, or “development” issues in Africa becomes a resource – to sort through the overabundant information, and to ask questions in the light of past experiences. Not in order to draw “lessons” but to question institutional arrangements and scientific devices that tend to depoliticize the major social and health issues raised by this pandemic – often though a constantly reframed sense of emergency that excludes the past and future from the reflection. We wish to invite contributors to this section to extract themselves, to the extent possible, from the dictate of immediacy to share what we call, with a slightly academic wink, their ” post-coronial thoughts”.