Behold the Africans wishing for coronavirus to come their way

Wednesday March 18 2020

In the last few weeks since the coronavirus disease Covid-19 picked up steam globally, we have seen a strange development.

Every day, there are articles quoting some expert or busybody from outside Africa wondering why the continent seems, so far, to have been largely spared the virus. And there are quite a few African voices, including in Kenya, all but complaining that we are missing out on the coronavirus party.

Both groups seem to think there is a conspiracy; that Covid-19 is all around and our governments — which are mostly incompetent on most other things — have miraculously found the smarts to cover up its rampage.

Some say that because health systems in Africa are crappy, we can’t detect Covid-19. They say not all countries have labs that can test for the virus. I read a clown who claimed that African blood is too strong for, or possibly even hostile to, Covid-19.

Some more benign views have suggested that the African weather is unfriendly to the coronavirus.

The more enlightened views have offered that it might be an indicator of how little Africa is connected to the global aviation system.

And they have a point. After all, outside places like South Africa and Morocco, there are few countries in Africa with more than one international airport. All international flights land in the single, sometimes ramshackle, big airport near the dusty capital.

By comparison, the United States has more than 50 that are quite busy, and if you add the occasional international flights it climbs to over 100.

Africa accounts for anything between one and 2.2 per cent of global air passenger traffic. Just like we do with votes during elections, we have not been able to count our air passenger traffic accurately.

But the chaps who have really got my attention are those saying that because Africa is battered by deadly viruses more than most parts of the world, many countries have actually got quite good at dealing with the threats. What is Covid-19 to someone who has wrestled the daddy of all viruses, Ebola? Still, one could argue that that ability would mean these countries can catch and deal with the virus, but it doesn’t explain why there are few.

Some of the above explanations could well be correct, but it’s still early days. The worst of the coronavirus might still come to Africa.

For now, the continent has managed to dodge the bullet. There have been more than 3,000 people worldwide who have died of the coronavirus, most of them in China where it all started, and nearly 90,000 infected in over 45 countries. But only Nigeria, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal and Morocco have so far confirmed one or two cases, some of them non-Africans. No one has died yet.

As a few wiser heads have said, at this point, we still don’t understand why Africa has escaped — and for how long. But the “puzzle” says a lot. Africa has had it so bad for decades, few are willing to believe that we can be lucky, even once.

With Ebola, locusts, all sorts of strange virus outbreaks, famine, floods, our own murderous conflicts, displacement, brutal and corrupt rule, name it, we seem to have forgotten what it’s like to get a good pass. It feels like a trick.

I saw this some years ago in areas of Uganda that had been ravaged by war. Post-conflict, people were reluctant to step up and be the first to take food at a buffet at a public event because they were not sure it wasn’t a set-up that would get the eager ones clobbered.

And for the rest of the world, there could something more sinister: The image of Africa as a continent of blight and misery is still strong, and a world where other parts of the globe are suffering from anything more than us is still incomprehensible to many.

However, far too many people, and whole nations, still desperately need to have others doing worse for them to feel good about themselves.

That’s why you hear people in a country that’s ruled by an incompetent corrupt cabal and its economy is bleeding will look around and say, “At least we have democracy, and speak freely unlike in (country) X”. And the people in country X, who are tormented by an autocrat, will also look around and say, “We might not have the so-called democracy but at least we are more peaceful and richer than (country) B.”

Misery is hell, but there is some certainty that comes from knowing that one has cornered the market, and victimhood can, in a peculiar way, be empowering. Additionally, if you come from a part of the world that’s had it good for a while, it can be terrifying to see the poor chaps who are supposed to suffering walking around happily without face masks when you can’t.

Still, to the Africans wondering why the coronavirus disease hasn’t struck big yet, be careful what you wish for.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3