Fighting Covid-19's effect on African communities

7:50 pm on 21 April 2020

By Abdul Mohamud *

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are my own and do not express the views of my employer or any other organization I'm involved in.

Opinion - A Swedish friend of mine who studies in the UK called me on Sunday night. He was coughing, and words like "microbes" and "droplets" sent chills down my spine, a situation most can relate to at these times.

Believers pray without taking social distancing during a Palm Sunday mass at the Full Gospel Bible Fellowship Church in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on April 5, 2020

Believers pray without taking social distancing during a Palm Sunday mass at the Full Gospel Bible Fellowship Church in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on April 5, 2020 Photo: AFP

He assured me that he was fine. He jokingly reassured me that Covid-19 cannot be transmitted through the phone, neither does he believe 5G technology was a transmitting host.

Thinking about the 5G conspiracy theory, I reminded him that the high level of anxiety the virus had caused to many people. We reminded ourselves of the role of witchdoctors and soothsayers in African societies during calamities. Our focus immediately shifted to how the African diaspora is coping with the pandemic in Europe, particularly in the UK and his own country Sweden.

The rate at which the virus is spreading among the African community is alarming. The African diaspora has been disproportionally represented in the Covid-19 statistics. Radio Sweden reported the Somali community in Sweden had been devastated by the virus.

As of 24 March, six out of 15 deaths in Stockholm area caused by the virus were of Swedish-Somalis, according to the English-speaking station. The Swedish-Somali Medical Association said lack of awareness early on may have played a role in this tragedy.

There are stories of young men in Stockholm coming home from a football match, to their parents and grandparents, saying that they had "just the flu", oblivious that their actions might cause death to their loved ones. These kinds of scenarios might have contributed to the statistics in Sweden.

My friend and I agreed that the socio-cultural norms among some African communities may have also played some part. He thought some of the cultural norms had to be confronted in order to save lives.

Here in New Zealand, it is clear some of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's decisions were influenced by what was happening in European nations.

Thoughts on how we could avoid what is happening to the African diaspora in Europe occurring in New Zealand have filled my mind. As an African New Zealander, balancing the echoes of the past and the promises of modernity is a constant struggle.

I believe many among the African community would attest to the struggle of being influenced by our own cultural norms. A government-led national awareness campaign targeting ethnic communities could help strike a healthy balance in this struggle.

Social distancing, a potent weapon in the fight against the pandemic, seemed an antithesis of socialising. For collectivist societies socialising is a matter of survival, and keeping oneself away from others is frowned upon. African maxims such as "if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together" are invoked upon communities to cement communal bonding.

There is plethora of traditional beliefs among African communities when it comes to disease. The stigma associated with getting sick has in the past proved to be an obstacle in tackling pandemics. According to the UN's AIDS statistics, stigma and discrimination almost halted the AIDS response in the early days of the HIV scourge. Infected people were afraid to be tested for the fear of being ostracised by their communities.

Shame cultures, as in most of African societies, used ostracisation as a punishment for those afflicted by calamities. Some traditional African beliefs hold that diseases are caused by breach of taboo, sorcery, angry ancestors and acts of gods. It would be difficult to discourage this age-old cultural norm at these trying times.

There is also the religious aspect too. Islam for example teaches that everything that would happen in this world is pre-ordained. Unfortunately, this has been wrongly interpreted by some to mean that we should act in a way that is 'normal' since whatever has been meant to happen would happen. This interpretation has completely gone against the prophetic traditions, which explicitly ordered that those with contagious diseases should be kept away from those who were healthy.

While Islam teaches to trust and have faith in God, it must not be construed to mean that one should be reckless and not take any precautionary measures. African churches have not been immune to critics for their nonchalant approach to Covid-19.

After refusing to close churches, a Tanzanian leader was recently quoted by the media that the "satanic virus cannot thrive in churches". A minister in Zimbabwe also made a claim that "Covid-19 was not an African disease, God was punishing the West for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe".

There is a need to work with New Zealand community organisations, as well as religious leaders, to harness the power of the media to reach out to ethnic communities.

There must be quick, decisive actions from relevant government agencies to come up with strategies to avert the devastating impact the pandemic has caused to African communities in countries like Sweden.

* Abdul Mohamud is a freelance writer on culture and african affairs

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