Webinar “Towards Understanding Grassroots Perspectives in Africa under COVID-19”
7 to 9pm, August 31, 2021
Report compiled by Wakiko OHIRA
The Japan Society of Afrasian Studies (JSAS) hosted the webinar, “Towards Understanding Grassroots Perspectives in Africa under COVID-19”, and it was co-hosted by Institution for Future Initiatives (IFI), the University of Tokyo.
OPENING REMARKS: Vick Ssali, Lecturer, Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University
The webinar opened with remarks from Dr. Vick Ssali, a Ugandan scholar at Aichi Gakuin University and the president of the Japan Society of Afrasian Studies (JSAS). To achieve the goal of JSAS, which is to promote inter-cultural, inter-generational and inter-disciplinary dialogues on issues affecting Africa and Asia, JSAS has encouraged academic dialogues among African and Asian scholars as well as students. Now, these academic dialogues are becoming increasingly important as the world faces the unprecedented pandemic—COVID-19. He ensured that this webinar would give us a hint on what African and Japanese scholars could take to suggest a better-informed approach to the pandemic.
INTRODUCTION: Kazuyo Hanai, Assistant Professor, Institute for Future Initiatives, The University of Tokyo
Then, Dr. Hanai explained that this webinar was a kick-off of a newly launched cross-country research project by JSAS members, “Exploration of Practical Wisdom and Resilience Overcoming Downside Risk—Collecting Grassroots Voices in Africa under COVID-19”. After briefly explaining about the research project, she provided an overview of the pandemic and government responses. Although the number of positive cases in Africa is not too high compared with other continents, she emphasized the need to take African-specific contexts into consideration, such as fragile health systems, rigid government responses to the pandemic, and use of violence in enforcing government measures. Also, in Africa, many countries suffer from other infectious diseases such as Ebola and Malaria, simultaneously with COVID-19. However, despite some common features observed in Africa, each country has country-specific contexts, and Dr. Hanai brings our attention to the importance of in-depth case studies. To fully understand the multi-dimension of COVID-19 and its impact, we need to look into each country in detail. That led us to six presentations from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.
“Societal and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: The case of South Africa”
Scarlet Cornelissen, Professor, Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University
South Africa, currently experiencing the third wave of COVID-19, is the most severely hit country in Africa. The country has been locked down for more than 500 days, and Dr. Cornelissen points out that lockdown may have saved lives; yet, it significantly impacted people’s livelihood. People suffer from unemployment, food insecurity, and a high dropout rate, just to list a few. The government decided to initiate a Special COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant to support the vulnerable; however, she explained that, instead of helping the people, the grant scheme invited wide criticism against the government and social unrest. She argues that challenges associated with COVID-19 are structural and unevenly spread across the country. The key here is the history of segregation in South Africa and those historically determined factors, such as geography, class, ethnicity/race, gender and generations. Not only do these factors determine the level of challenges and sufferings, but they may also have an impact on people’s robustness and resilience.
“Martial law and COVID-19: Evidence from the DR Congo”
Christian Otchia, Associate Professor, Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University
Next, Dr. Otchia presented a case in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC is unique in the sense that a particular region of the country, mainly North Kivu and Ituri in eastern DRC, experiences conflict, Ebola, and COVID-19 simultaneously. Also, Dr. Otchia points out that applying martial law, which replaces civil rule with military authority during a crisis, is unique in DRC. He cautions that the strengthened authority of the army under martial law puts human rights in jeopardy and questions whether martial law is an effective measure to fight against COVID-19. A result of preliminary research shows that martial law has not been able to stop the trend of COVID-19 in those two provinces. To fully examine the impact of martial law, some DRC-specific elements—rampant corruption, high occurrence of natural disaster, and presence of rebel groups—must be considered. Dr. Otchia and his team will continue to study the impact of martial law and explore practical wisdom to understand how people become more resilient to COVID-19 under martial law.
“Responding to COVID-19 in Ethiopia: A Triple heritage perspective”
Seifudein Adem, Professor, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University
The next presenter was Dr. Adem, introducing an Ethiopian case. The key concept in his presentation was “Africa’s triple heritage”, which was defined by the late Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, as the synthesis of three cultural legacies that have shaped Africa: Indigenous values, Islam and Western culture. Dr. Adem adapted Mazrui’s triple heritage framework to examine how Ethiopia’s triple heritage—Christianity, Islam and Western secularism—has affected people’s responses to COVID-19 and the government measures. He observes the tension between a belief system of the faithful and secular public policies. For instance, if you look at a cure for COVID-19 patients, the faithful are urged to repent for their sins through prayers, whereas the government recommends secular medical therapy. Also, when the government prohibited group prayers in churches and mosques, it was met with wide criticism. However, as the risks of COVID-19 became more visible, the line between the dictates of the two religions and the secularism of the government has blurred. It is important to examine how this tense yet evolving relationship among the triple heritage further affects the spread of COVID-19 and people’s resilience in Ethiopia.
COMMENTS: Mr. Masaki Inaba, Africa Japan Forum
These three presentations received comments from Mr. Inaba, a program director of global health at Africa Japan Forum. He remarked that the South African case presents both success and challenges in fighting against COVID-19 and that historical legacies should be considered to mitigate the suffering of the vulnerable. Then, he commented on DRC’s case that it would be interesting to collect more information to examine the (in)effectiveness of martial law as preventive measures against COVID-19 in local political and social contexts. Also, he remarked on the Ethiopian case that how important it is to bring spiritual aspects into analysis of people’s response to COVID-19 and government measures. Due to the pandemic, previously hidden problems or conflicts became quite visible at the local, national and international levels. Mr. Inaba explained that, despite the fact that African countries face numerous challenges, Africa has also demonstrated unique strength in shaping global policies to fight against the pandemic. African leaders have played important roles in leading the transition of multilateral cooperation to the next paradigm and mitigate global medical and vaccine gaps. In short, African leaders’ roles at the international and local levels should be examined to have a full picture of the multi-dimension of COVID-19 and government responses.
To the question of which age groups are more affected by the pandemic in South Africa, Dr. Cornelissen answered that it has been shifting. In the beginning, senior age groups were more vulnerable, and young people were considered more resistant to the virus. However, at this point, she observes that young people, between 15 and 25 years old, are increasingly affected. She stressed that it is not unique in South Africa yet a global trend. To the question of how people perceive risks associated with vaccinations, Dr. Cornelissen replied that the perceptions have also been shifting and that people are becoming less skeptical of vaccinations and less hesitant to get vaccinated. The third question, whether a high number of migrants and refugees from DRC into neighboring countries demonstrates people’s resilience against the pandemic, was addressed to Dr. Otchia. He explained that, although it might be a form of their resilience, refugees from DRC are not new but rather a historical issue. Examining people’s resilience is one of the main objectives of this cross-country research project. He pointed out that it is important to examine how people use their knowledge from other infectious diseases like Ebola and Malaria to prevent themselves from COVID-19.
“Political intervention and the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on the masses in Uganda”
Vick Ssali, Lecturer, Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University
The second section of the webinar, which focused on the politicization of government responses, started with a presentation by Dr. Ssali on a Ugandan case. In Uganda, the outbreak of COVID-19 overlapped with the time of the 2021 presidential elections, and it led to people’s perception that COVID-19 was not reality but a political tool. For instance, the government’s monopoly over distributing food aid was considered an electoral campaign. Also, people thought that the ruling party intensively used armed forces to restrict oppositions’ campaigns under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Thus, during the first wave of COVID-19, people largely remained skeptical of the disease as well as the government. Uganda has recently faced a severe second wave, and the number of positive cases and deaths increased dramatically. Given the challenges, the key is how to overcome people’s skepticism about the disease and distrust in the government.
“The politics of scapegoating and fatigue in COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya”
Kinyua Laban Kithinji, Research Fellow, Graduate School of Global Studies, Sophia University
In his presentation, Dr. Kinyua explained that economic, social and political anxieties are emerging in Kenya, particularly because of excessive use of police force and its brutality to implement government measures to fight against COVID-19. He describes that, for instance, curfew has been used by the police to legitimize its brutality. When two brothers were arrested by policy for violating a curfew and later found dead, it led to nationwide protest, inviting further anger and violence. Just like in Uganda, this kind of instability is intertwined with upcoming national elections in 2022. Dr. Kinyua argues that local and national political leaders exploit the grievances of those who were affected by COVID-19 and police brutality. By presenting themselves as sympathizers of the affected, political leaders are trying to consolidate their political support. Furthermore, Dr. Kinyua argues that the pandemic sort of allowed political leaders to blame COVID-19 for political, economic and social uncertainties, which have been created over the years, and present themselves as redeemers in 2022 elections. By examining people’s resilience and practical wisdom in these politicized situations, cases in Uganda and Kenya together provide another perspective in this cross-country research project.
“Farmer’s perception of COVID-19 on agricultural markets and rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe”
Rangarirai Gavin Muchetu, Research Assistant, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University
Finally, Dr. Muchetu presented a case in Zimbabwe. His presentation focused on the impact of COVID-19 and government measures on rural farmers and the agricultural market. Compared with other African countries, the fatality rate at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak was quite high in Zimbabwe. It led the government to implement strict measures to restrict people’s mobility. Although the research is still preliminary, Dr. Muchetu expects that the impact of COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe is rather economic than health threats because farmers face difficulties in accessing agricultural inputs and labor. Dr. Muchetu analyzes that, when examining the impact of those government measures, the differences between urban and rural areas, such as underlying health issues, access to health facilities, level of education, must be considered. For instance, the level of education affects people’s ability to discern fake and real news on SNS and other news sources, and it greatly shapes their perception of COVID-19. Furthermore, in addition to a simple dichotomy of urban and rural, he points out intra-city and intra-rural differences perceptions to COVID-19 also exist. Thus, examining people’s perception, resilience, and practical wisdom requires close observation of these variables.
The question of whether a curfew in Kenya was imposed nationwide was addressed to Dr. Kinyua. He answered that, although there were various measures in different counties in Kenya, currently it is nationwide, prohibiting people’s mobility from 10 pm to 4 am. Because it is applied nationwide and differences between urban and rural settings are not considered, it significantly affects people in rural areas. All four questions in the first and second Q&A sessions were raised by scholars based in Uganda. We can observe a high level of curiosity among Africans to understand cases and situations in other African countries and how they differ. Q&A sessions highlighted the importance of comparative cross-country analysis of COVID-19 and its impact.