Giving Compass' Take:

• Chris Macoloo explains the social and cultural barriers that make addressing COVID-19 particularly difficult in Africa. 

• How can you best support efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Africa? 

• Consider supporting the COVID-19 Africa solidarity fund

The coronavirus is now spreading in almost all African countries, with the majority of cases in capital cities. The speed at which the virus is spreading is an indication that in many countries it has reached the community transmission stage and it is no longer the people coming from abroad who are the only carriers. The official figures of infection rates reported by most African governments are likely underestimated given limited testing capacity.

Most governments are trying to limit the spread of the virus by asking citizens to adopt many of the same behavioral changes that other countries have adopted, like frequently washing their hands with running water and soap; using hand sanitizers; not shaking hands; staying at home; using face masks in public places; avoiding touching one’s face, mouth or nose; maintaining a distance of at least one meter from the next person; avoiding overcrowded places or gatherings such as places of worship and open air markets; and adopting proper hygienic sneezing and coughing methods.

Of all these preventative measures, three are particularly difficult to enforce in Africa: maintaining social distance, avoiding shaking hands, and staying at home.

Maintaining Social Distance

Many poor Africans live in crowded areas in urban slums where most are either self-employed or are day laborers. In these situations, it is nearly impossible for the poor to keep their distance and stay at home to avoid getting the virus. The single rooms they live in are in themselves overcrowded because as many as six people may be living in one room and the dwelling structures themselves are very close to each other.

The poor can also not stay at home because they have to look for work or engage in small businesses to earn money to feed their families. In addition, poor and working-class people use public and private transportation in which as many passengers as possible are carried.

Avoiding Shaking Hands

Getting people to refrain from shaking hands is a more complex challenge because it is a deeply rooted and important cultural behavior. In Africa, a firm handshake accompanied with eye contact is the order of the day. It is a culturally engrained practice in traditional societies. Refusing to shake hands, particularly when it is offered by the other party, is interpreted as a show of disrespect both of the culture and of the other person.

Staying at Home

While social distancing and hand shaking are difficult, staying at home will be extremely challenging to maintain. For the majority of Africans, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Staying at home is akin to sentencing wage earners and those in the informal sector to eviction from their homes and malnutrition or even starvation.

Read the full article about addressing COVID-19 in Africa by Chris Macoloo at Stanford Social Innovation Review.