With what feels like a high tide coming in, the impact of COVID-19 in Africa echoes across the rivers, over the mountains, down into the proverbial valleys where our communities had made a home and people were going about their business of trying to make a living. It may be difficult to look up from our own needs as we see the waters nearing faster. As positive cases and COVID-19 related deaths increase, so too does confusion over what is truly new about continental hardships. If you interrogate different national strategies, a thread running through it all across borders is one of resilience but also one of COVID-19 mutating poverty.
I do not know what a continental response focussed on collective wellbeing and ujamaa in KiSwahili could look like. However, if we were to desire Ubuntu (or botho in Setswana, Sesotho and Sepedi) as a COVID-19 response, how Africa typically responded to the lengana-based tonic suggested by Madagascar, there is much to be desired.
Collective wellbeing is not foreign to Africa at all and we are seeing glimpses of it during this pandemic. What would it take to each pause and consider what a neighbour needed help with at this panic-stricken hour?
When I think about my #WellbeingWednesday focus during lockdown, the needs in Africa are like the debris floating in the proverbial flood water. Having reflected on conversations with my news-flashing TV screen, colleagues, friends and family members, there is this sense of wanting to cope better but not alone.
As a psychologist observing people hard at work tackling this pandemic, there seems to be a sense of longing to feel less stressed by the untameable and more anchored in hope collectively during an increasingly self-serving changing reality (e.g. #Stockpiling being a point in case). Is it not perhaps a need to each think differently daily for the sake of our collective wellbeing…not just my family… not just me? It includes recognising that something is not quite right with individualistic responses during a crisis especially in a continent such as ours or any part of the world for that matter.
In his video posted on 06 March 2020, Graeme Codrington (Futurist – TomorrowToday Global) says, “You only have as much immunity as the least protected person in your country has. So this is an opportunity for those of us richer, healthier, people who have privilege to recognise that we are all in this together!”
Is this not the time for an upward spike in botho amidst so many threats to our collective wellbeing? What does resource-sharing look like in this pandemic? It could mean sharing responsibility, burdens, and extra food. Does your tenant or that child you see daily even have bread for the day? Do you care? Should you care? It could mean sharing extra sanitisers, health guidelines, inexpensive coping resources and easy activities for stressed parents with children. The list in our minds should be endless with a focus on maintaining our physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Is this not the very thing to protect at the centre of this village that is flooding?
The waves of fear, panic and self-sufficiency that are brought nearer to our shores by the COVID-19 pandemic, look larger than anticipated upon closer inspection and may be the very thing that destructs our collective wellbeing faster than Corona virus itself. We may not quite realise that to lose our collective wellbeing is to lose our individual wellbeing in the long-run, should we create a worse-off situation by not acting differently with botho today towards our neighbours in their own distress.
Showing botho to each other surely is still possible even from a social distance. It could mean using our self-isolating energy to still help others in sincere ways even if we don’t stand to fully benefit from every interaction. May we choose to look up and see this shared yet differing reality holistically.
Whilst we share memes and TikTok videos, may we also share hope, reassurance, assistance and dignity restoration in practical uncomplicated ways in addition to the information sharing. Are you seeing the least protected and least advocated for in our community and thinking of new ways to support?
Here are 14 considerations about our communities below to challenge our mind-sets to see needs outside of our own needs:
• Consider helpers/nannies – specialists in cleanliness – who may feel like they’re being schooled in washing hands as the supposedly ‘uneducated’ instead of being consulted for suggestions in our homes, as they always have been experts in hygiene. Consider their needs as expressed by them not as assumed or help imposed. ️What kind of difficult but necessary questions can you ask those who have helpers to hold them accountable to helping their helpers?
• Consider the waged workers at risk of a poorer quality of life and more hardship because of no-work-no-pay decisions by employers. Your youthful energy and information access could be what helps someone who finds themselves unemployed or earning less without means to basic needs like food parcels or unemployment insurance application processes.
• Consider the workers from other countries, in foreign lands who foresee a dreary time – unable to go home to their children or potentially being trapped in their countries with no guarantee of employment even if they can return in the future. They may simply need assurance that it will not always be like this.
• Consider the cashier who rings up stockpiles of food the whole day yet can’t do the same for herself even on a staff discount that is if there is anything left on the shelves at the end of each day. Advocate for buying what you need only perhaps and leaving room for others.
• Consider the person who can’t even leave their home to get essentials or the one not tech-savvy enough to order online. What about the elderly who may feel lonelier until visitors are allowed again? How many of us have our elderly family members kilometres away from us or living alone perhaps? What do we as youth stand to lose by volunteering assistance without receiving pay?
• Consider the single parent who can’t bring their child to work with them or the colleague who is secretly stressed by how much they can convince others that they are indeed productively working from home (which they are) in Zoom meetings with cartoons busy jumping in puddles on the TV screen behind them. Don’t be that colleague who guilt trips.
• Consider the entrepreneur like the Uber driver who is worried about the drastic decline in daily trips while parked outside the airport for hours. Business owners may be even more worried about what fourteen days of no work would look like if they tested positive since they are the business and the walking contingency plan, yet they are still serving the community. Let us still support local businesses by buying or making use of services.
• Consider the student who now has to make a plan to go home due to campus shutdowns or cannot access online learning content. The unbudgeted high-exposure trip home will probably use up money that could have bought data. Buy data or lend a device to enable learning.
• Consider the commuters who use public transport; passing through multiple ranks and stations without a car to travel alone in. So as I comfortably hopped off the bus in South Africa just before the lockdown in March, I noticed the same struggles with new pandemic-sized eyes. I saw creative survivalist of young businessmen around the biggest taxi rank selling individual masks, a pair of gloves, fewer pocket-sized wipes (re-packaged) at around R2 and R5, instead of big boxes at greedy retailer prices. They understand what affordability and need look like. These are the kind of contextual responses that lean in differently.
So yes, consider the survivalist entrepreneurs on the street selling fruit, mealies, brooms, cell phone chargers, skopo, plates of warm work lunches, umbrellas and all other things we need, but without a safe business site to work from or proper sanitation options during this pandemic. How amazing would something like this be, perhaps?
• Consider the porter and the paramedic who serve in unseen ways and will attend to emergencies before patients even test positive for Corona virus with no easy way to get to patients in outlying villages. Imagine how different their work shifts on a weekend could be with fewer casualties due to responsible drinking and behaviour.
• Consider the woman with a high-risk pregnancy who has to go to a public hospital for her weekly check-ups still. Consider mothers to NICU babies who cannot imagine anything in this world even COVID-19 stopping them from going to the hospital every day.
• Consider the counsellor, social worker or the home-based care nurse who works in a community where a Zoom session or phone call is not possible as an alternative. When care is withdrawn from communities that really need the mental healthcare more than ever now with increases in gender-based violence, malnutrition due to school feeding schemes not operating, anxiety, depression and suicide, what could happen?
• Spare a thought for the car guards, the pamphlet distributors, the waste collectors and the homeless among us, who will perhaps be given less money because of social distancing and slow economic activity, which is supposed to keep ALL of us safer. That being said, do we truly care deeply that, they too, are safe while living on the streets during cold fronts or extreme heat waves? What about now during a pandemic?
These are only a few situations to consider in our African context during this COVID-19 pandemic. Once we have somewhat made peace with this changing future today, let us reckon with our hearts to choose botho over COVID-19 fears; to choose selflessness over selfishness. May we look up from our own situations, as rough as these situations are for there is no better suffering but definitely worse situations than what we may be experiencing.
May we realise that if you look through the trees, the sun is still shining. There is enough air for all of us to breathe in, feel better, look each other in the eye. Together, we can gain more strength to get through this today and every other day that we will be facing this pandemic. The strength of the tree surely is rooted in botho.
Tell us: What do you think of this essay?