The normality of risk: African and European responses to Covid-19

In the old days, Mozambican migrant miners left their homes for stints of 18 months in South Africa. As an illiterate migrant miner was getting ready to return home, a letter from his uncle arrived. Someone read it to him, as was usual practice then. When after informing him about how his herd had grown and the kids were doing at school, the uncle also reported that the miner’s wife had a two-month-old pregnancy, the miner jumped up, grabbed the letter and exclaimed “let me see that!”. Sometimes anxiety makes you forget who you are and what you are able to do.

It is hard not to think about this tale when I look at how African countries are reacting to the Covid-19 menace. The strategies are different, but they all have one thing in common. They seem to perceive it as an extraordinary event coming to disrupt their otherwise normal lives. The havoc so far wreaked by Covid-19 in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, is too serious to be shrugged off as just another pandemic. However, the idea that African countries must respond to this challenge in the same way European countries are responding is a curious one.

Much of the response in Europe is informed by a very local notion of risk. The fear that a rapid infection rate might overwhelm the sanitary infrastructure plays an important role in how these societies evaluate the dangers of Covid-19. While African countries should take the urgency of their response seriously, there is no reason why Africans should do exactly the same as Europeans.

The choice in Africa is not between letting people die or saving the economy. The choice may be between letting many people die while preserving essential economic and social infrastructure, or letting many people die while failing to preserve essential economic and social infrastructure.

One wishes the choice presented itself in a different way, but such is the condition of a continent begotten by a viciously unfair colonial history. We face the same enemy, but not the same risk.

The concept of risk became central to sociological theory thanks largely to the work of the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck. He used it not only to provide a grim picture of what happens to a society when it takes too many chances, as is the case with technological development. He also deployed it to describe how difficult life becomes when individuals can no longer rely on experts and knowledge.

Risk society, Beck’s conceptual object, became the challenge of dealing with the uncertainty resulting from the inability to take things for granted. This partly explains European responses to the pandemic. In spite of appearances to the contrary, expert knowledge is not the decisive element in how these societies are addressing the pandemic because there is no consensus among experts themselves concerning what to do.

A significant part of what drives responses is the naked fear of the consequences of not appearing to take any action. Taking dramatic action is the most effective way of allaying such fears. Expert opinion is taken on faith, not necessarily on reason. In fact, there is much in the European response smacking of a return to superstition as governments respond favourably to the kind of knowledge that justifies the measures they take, instead of deriving their measures from the soundness of expertise.

To be sure, European responses draw from a notion of risk that takes into account the particular ways in which technologically advanced and democratic societies have been rendered vulnerable by their own progress. The particular way in which the pandemic has hit older people, strained health infrastructure and made the decision to lock down such a difficult one illustrates the point.

Europe has lived for far too long under the comfortable canopy of the seventeenth and eighteenth century German philosopher Leibniz’ celebration of “the best of all possible worlds”. Covid-19 has lifted the canopy to reveal a simple, but bitter truth: no matter how sophisticated your response to nature is, in the long run it will expose a weakness you were not aware of. This truth exposes the wisdom in Voltaire’s obscure remark to the effect that “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh”.

African audiences have been laughing all along, perhaps also because they learnt the hard way that confronting crises was all that life was about. The sociology of risk does not mention this, but there is a colonial dimension to the “taming” of risk in Europe.

The idea of insurance was also a response to the uncertainty of supplies from overseas. Colonial rule is part of the history of creating a reliable framework within which one could insure against the risk of failing to deliver supplies. One of the largest re-insurance companies in the world, Lloyd’s, started off as a coffee shop owned by one Mr. Lloyd, patronized by seamen who later became correspondents relaying news on the safety of trading routes. Blaise Pascal’s probability theory is only the mathematical side of the story that allowed Europeans to calculate risk. Colonial subjection served the prudential role of re-inventing ordinary Europeans into stable consumers on the back of the domination of colonial subjects.

There is a post-colonial irony about how African countries respond to Covid-19. They fully buy into a crisis narrative that glosses over the fact that their normal condition is one of crisis, not of normality.

Quite apart from the fact that it is not entirely clear whether a virus taking so long to reach the continent will hit it with the same force it hit other regions, calls for and moves towards general lockdowns in Africa appear counter-intuitive. The pandemic exposed European vulnerability, for example its strong reliance on medical infrastructure and the legitimate expectations of the elderly that this infrastructure meets their needs.

Africans have always responded to crises by appealing to their vibrant social safety nets for protection and action. This is not a romantic view of the continent. It is a pragmatic acknowledgement of the continent’s real situation, one to which Africans have responded in resilient ways, even if at great human cost. Lockdowns, at least theoretically, weaken these safety nets by depriving individuals both of sources of livelihood as well as of opportunities for bonding.

Should the pandemic really take up the horror-like proportions worst-case scenarios are warning us against, Africa’s best bet will be the much maligned herd immunity. Flattening the curve does not buy Africa any time at all, it simply postpones the day of reckoning.

Covid-19 is a cruel reminder that crisis is us. As we brace up to look the pandemic in the eye, we would be well advised not to forget what our normal is, namely crisis. History has taught us that you do not master a crisis by setting the return to normality as your goal. You master a crisis by enabling yourself to act whatever the circumstances.

Elísio Macamo is a sociologist by training, and Professor of African Studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where until December 2018 he was Director of the Centre for African Studies and Head of the Social Science Department. His recent interest is on conceptual and methodological issues in African studies. He is widely published and author of "The Taming of Fate: Approaching Risk from a Social Action Perspective - Case Studies from Southern Mozambique" (CODESRIA, 2017).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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