Africa: Turning the Tables - African and European Narratives in the Time of Corona

(File image)
24 March 2020
guest column

Most of Europe is in lockdown, trying to cope with the huge implications of the battle against the novel coronavirus. Africans are following what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean with relief that Africa is not currently the epicentre of the crisis, but also with a troubled gaze.

Yet, precisely because in the past the spread of deadly infectious diseases affected many African countries, this feeling is coupled with the desire to share their experiences and show a level of alertness and preparedness that has been lacking in European countries. In Africa, there was also dark humour and jokes on why the spread of the outbreak is taking much longer in Africa than it did elsewhere, or if this time around Europe will ask for the advice of African experts on how to manage the crisis.

Two interesting, and at times ironic, perceptions and narrative shifts have emerged amidst the fight against COVID-19 and the macroeconomic doom the virus has generated. The first relates to how tables have turned on migration and mobility between Europe and Africa, and to how the general 'control and contain' attitude towards African mobility to Europe is currently reversed, albeit temporarily.

The second is the realisation, perhaps from the European side, that limitless mobility within Europe and easy travel access to much of the rest of the world has been taken for granted when it was in fact a privilege, and is now suspended.

In the days after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe, various alternative outlets and Africans on Twitter noted the change in who poses a threat to whom, as reports showed that the majority of the first COVID-19 cases in Africa originated from European visitors. This not only challenged the narrative and representation of Africa as the source of problems, but it also reversed the roles on mobility governance between the two continents.

Many African countries introduced health checks at their airports, in an attempt to prevent and contain the outbreak in their territories. Many also advised self-isolation for travellers from European hotspots and some imposed a 14-day quarantine on travellers from affected European countries. Today, many African airlines have suspended flights to and from major European capitals and a few African countries have closed their borders to travellers from all COVID-19 affected countries.

This is of course unprecedented and a novel phenomenon for European travellers who generally have 'visa on arrival' privileges in a majority of African countries, while the reverse doesn't hold true. As many African countries try to control European mobility to their territories, anecdotes emerged of Italians being sent back because they refused to stay in quarantine in Tunisia and others overstaying their visas in Ethiopia.

This role reversal did not go unnoticed by many Africans. Further, unfounded accusations of 'coronisation' surfaced in some francophone countries in West Africa, and misinformation, selective bias and fear took over in some contexts. European visitors and migrants in Africa shared their experiences of social rejection and harassment, though this is occurring on a micro-scale and such anecdotes are more an anomaly than the norm. Nonetheless, these incidents mimic the sentiments we so often see in European populists' narrative towards migrants.

The sudden travel bans and restrictions imposed by some African countries and the US caught Europeans by surprise. While ordinary European citizens did imagine these measures would be necessary – and actually found out that their own governments did exactly the same a couple of days later – certainly the implications are only now beginning to sink in.

From a European perspective, these restrictions are unfamiliar while such limitations are the rule for the majority of Africans. The checks at border crossings or travel bans imply a temporary 'depreciation' of European passports in the global ranking, where for years they were at the top.

Even more shocking was the overnight and uncoordinated introduction of travel restrictions and border checks within the Schengen area. These measures hit home, because for decades Europeans have enjoyed passport-free travel within the Schengen area and built their lives around it, with easy cross-border work and travel. Having taken down nearly all border infrastructure, until last week the only way to know you had crossed a border was when you received a text message from your mobile phone provider.

It's too early to know the medium- to long-term implications of this crisis. When governments will have managed to get this virus under control globally, there is a chance that these shifts might contribute to the development of new narratives – or they may help us to think differently about these issues in the future.

First, Europeans' newly discovered vulnerability and the sense of having limits imposed on their freedom of movement, especially when fleeing situations of real danger, could change their attitude towards migration'. It remains to be seen, putting hopes aside, in which direction this change will go.

COVID-19 is the biggest crisis that ordinary Europeans have had to grapple with in decades and it is hitting everyone. The need for Europe to put time and resources into fighting it and its consequences will likely reduce the inclination of Europeans to engage with the rest of the world. In member states questions around European solidarity and the role for and relevance of the EU are likely to emerge.

In Africa, there are currently few reported cases, but these are likely to increase in the coming days and weeks. The scale of transmission and impact of the epidemic is yet to be seen and will obviously depend on the quality of preparedness and responses in Africa. The African CDC has established a task force to coordinate preparedness and responses in the continent. At the national level, governments are increasingly monitoring travellers, restricting public gatherings, cancelling events and shutting schools in an attempt to prevent a massive outbreak.

However, much remains to be done and the continent is bracing for the worst, in economic terms as well. At the societal level, creating awareness of the epidemic and personal prevention methods is ongoing, but nascent. In a context where millions in Africa rely on the informal sector, the quest for daily livelihood trumps the pressure to stay home and cut down on social interactions. Plus, the existence of informal settlements in urban centres makes self-imposed isolation and social distancing physically and practically impossible.

As a result, if COVID-19 is to hit hard on the continent, we'll likely see – as we are seeing in the US – a more pronounced class element of the outbreak, whereby economic factors play a role in determining who is most affected, who dies, and who gets to survive its economic woes.

Overall, there is a humbling note to COVID-19 and how it is blind to colour, race, class, age and gender. The changing narratives might just be temporary and the tables could go back to their original setting. At the end of the day, this epidemic may not induce more solidarity between and within Africa and Europe. We may be learning this the hard way, but if anything, this pandemic might teach us a thing or two about the 'I am because we are' principle.

Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, a policy officer in the Security and Resilience Programme at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, ECDPM has an MA in International Peacebuilding from University of Notre Dame (USA). Virginia Mucchi is head of communication at ECDPM. The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supportedby a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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