Sunday, April 19, 2020
Chicago, USA

he former President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf recently published a letter to the world on why we need to keep hope alive in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. She proposes that what is needed now particularly in Africa is not a spirit of fear, but a resilient spirit to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. She points out that while African nations have so far been spared the worst, that it is simply a matter of time before the pandemic batters the African continent which is the least prepared to fight it.

There are signs that while the spread of Covid-19 has been slow in Africa, it seems to be gathering steam. According to Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, "case numbers are increasing exponentially in the African region. "It took 16 days from the first confirmed case in the Region to reach 100 cases. It took a further 10 days to reach the first thousand. Three days after this, there were 2000 cases, and two days later we were at 3000." In the midst of these rising cases, rendering panic and fear, are there any signs of hope that Africa will survive this pandemic?

Resilience and Health Protocols Developed from Ebola Outbreak

There is always an initial fear and sometimes dire predictions when people face epidemics especially one that is novel like Covid-19. This was the case with the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. While we should not minimize the seriousness of the threats which the globe faces and Africa's vulnerabilities, we must also put the facts in perspective within the context of the resilience of African communities.

In his ethnographic study of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Paul Richards concludes that even though Ebola unleashed a deadly force in West Africa, it also reveals how a people's science could help fight a deadly epidemic. He proposes that rather than focusing only at the failure of public healthcare in Africa and international solidarity, one should pay greater attention to how it reveals the resilience of African communities.

This resilience was shown, in how African communities who were originally 'scared into mass flight' over the disease rallied together, and worked with local agents and international responders to roll back the hand of death. These communities, he proposes, succeeded in ending the Ebola epidemic against the 'doom-laden predication' that millions will die in Africa as a result of Ebola and the international isolation and flight bans to countries affected by Ebola by 40 countries including Britain and France.

The success of all the measures, which eventually rolled back the hand of death in West Africa, was dependent on the use of communal social networks, communal surveillance, tapping into the social capital in the complex and rich chain of African communal and social ties, neighborhood groups, and social solidarity. According to President Sirleaf, countries in West Africa emerged from the Ebola outbreak with resiliency, health protocols, and practices which could help slow down, break the chain of transmission, and flatten the curve of Covid-19.

Faith as a Social Capital in Fighting Covid-19 in Africa

Another resource for hope in Africa today is religious faith and faith-based actors in the continent. The late Kenyan religious scholar, John Mbiti was the one who popularized the saying that Africans are incurably religious. This claim has been validated by consistent research. The Pew Research Study Center, for instance, in a 2018 global survey found out that Christians in Africa and Latin America tend to pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere in the world. In 2019, the same trends held in Africa where there is a high approval for the increased role of religion in the sub-Saharan African countries surveyed including Christians and Muslims. Almost three-quarters in Kenya and Nigeria (both 74%) favor an increased role of religion, while about two-thirds of South Africans also favor a more important role of religion.

In January 2014, the World Bank Group revitalized its engagement with faith-based and religious organizations which was launched in 1998. The World Bank recognizes the need to strengthen the capacity of religious groups who are often doing the essential work on the frontlines of combatting extreme poverty, protecting the vulnerable, delivering essential services, alleviating suffering and responding to outbreaks of diseases, and humanitarian disasters.

Whereas humanitarian work and partnership for health and development have often been led by Western agencies who see themselves as non-faith actors, these interventions are targeted at communities in Africa, for instance, for whom religion and faith is the waft and weft of daily life. Peter Walker and his team of scholars point to 'large scale studies' on how faith functions as sites for the promotion of resilience in people's search for meaning in the face of pandemics, in anxiety reduction and in promoting the sense of social connectedness and communion with the sacred.

Robert Putnam's research which was popularized through his book Bowling Alone and the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard also conclude that religion is a powerful social capital which can help all communities to develop the kinds of civic cultures that can promote the common good, norms of reciprocity, and social trust for meeting with the crisis which they face. My research on religion and development proposes that in a continent where faith is so central to people's meaning-making structure, one can weave religious narratives in ways which can strengthen the bonds of community and advance human and cosmic flourishing. In addition, I show how states could collaborate with religious leaders in spreading the right information on Covid-19 and in developing those recommended social practices which can suppress and mitigate this pandemic in Africa.

Religious leaders and religious people in Africa must become agents of hope, by actively supporting the efforts at suppression and mitigation and by supporting their faithful with food, water, and where possible housing and monetary gift. This is not the time for religious leaders to ask for tithes and impose further religious and spiritual burdens on the people; rather we need to be close to each other in love, prayers, and sharing of the Word of God through social media and other means which are available which respect social distancing. Churches should use their networks to educate the people on how to suppress and mitigate the disease. Also, the churches must work against any form of discrimination and stigmatization of Covid19 survivors and be inclusive of all-the sick, the healthy, old, young, poor and rich.

The Solution is in our Communities

Finally, as President Sirleaf notes in her letter, the only solution to fighting Covid-19 remains in our communities. African communities of faith are potential sites for interrupting the trajectory of Covid-19 in the continent. Religious groups by their very nature offer what Kenneth Pargament and Jeremy Cummings call 'relational resilience.' This gives people a sense of hope through social solidarity. Connectivity through shared bonds of faith when properly managed can also strengthen the capacity of people to work together, to persevere through adversity in order to bring about a better outcome in the face of outbreaks and traumas. African communities must call forth the social capital which faith can potentially offer as an essential resource in the fight against Covid-19