As the region tackles over 7,000 reported cases, we know the limitations of our health care systems, government’s inadequate capacity to mobilize citizens’ collaborative action and the sad state of public coffers to fund the response required to beat the pandemic.
And so as everyone scrambles to respond and prepare for worse, it is important to ask: what is the role of civil society?
The concept of civil society stems from Aristotle’s concept of a political society – koinonia polotike translated from Greek to Latin as societas civilis and in English to civil society.
In early usage, society meant association with one’s fellows and today there are three elements considered essential to civil society: autonomy from the state; interdependence with the state; and pluralism of values, ideals and ways of life.
These elements provide a guide for what our mission should be in the face of this pandemic: to enhance fellowship and collaboration between states and citizens while upholding the values that underpin a good society.
There are three areas civil society should be investing in right now.
Civil society – armed with data, information and recommendations – should engage governments on options for isolating those who are most at risk.
We already know that the virus takes a toll on the elderly and those with existing health conditions. We know that physical distancing, in densely populated and impoverished societies such as Lagos where an estimated 66 percent of the 20 million people live in slums, is impossible.
Millions of West Africans live on less than $2 a day and must earn daily to eat. It is not possible for governments to provide for every citizen who live hand to mouth. But, we also know that inadequate government provision and delays could lead to the social unrest we see in Italy and South Africa.
We know that life does not pause during a global pandemic; babies will be born and certain illnesses will kill. Our hospitals must be prepared to keep the infected away from the rest of the patients and ensure that our maternal mortality rates, typically high, do not spike for lack of care.
Doctors, nurses and midwives working on the frontlines are high-risk for infection and should be the priority for personal protective equipment, alternative lodgings to keep their families safe and getting the latest information about prevention and care.
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Africa’s researchers and scientists need access to data and funding to explore what is local and indigenous to our environment that can increase our capacity to deal with COVID-19 especially when global supply chains are strained.
As members of civil society, we must use our convening power to assist our economists in modelling how best to protect livelihoods and keep our economies going.
There will be implications for the five presidential elections scheduled for 2020 within West Africa and now is the time to begin proactive engagement with election management bodies to review constitutions and electoral laws.
Dictators disguised as democrats should not be allowed to use the pandemic to force through their agenda or to ignore it as witnessed this March, in Guinea.
It is not a luxury to think and plan for a post-pandemic future where the strength of our institutions will determine how well we recover.
Communications and advocacy
Perhaps because it is hard to measure its impact, the first line item cut from most budgets is communication costs, yet this is where, ironically, civil society must invest more.
Absolutely everything hinges on how well citizens are informed about government plans and public health advice. As the author Yuval Hariri puts it, “a self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.”
For years, civil society has collaborated with partners in faith-based and traditional institutions, academia, public health and the media on everything from polio vaccines to voter registration.
We can provide support to ensure a diverse range of communication is provided to inform the public, across all social lines.
A lot of creative messaging on COVID-19 is circulating on social media but millions are not on these platforms. For instance, less than 20 percent of the population of Liberia, Guinea and The Gambia are on the internet, making radio and community engagement the best tools to reach the masses.
Religion is proving to be a barrier in accepting the public health advise in Nigeria and Senegal where religious leaders had initially refused to stop congregational prayers and/or declared that believers are immune to COVID-19.
This is a recipe for disaster across the board including health, law, order and social cohesion. The public will view with suspicion government distributions of scarce medical resources and relief material resulting in defiance and violence. As was the case with Ebola, we might see increased scapegoating as people retreat into superstition and myths to explain the situation.
We can expect hate crimes against foreigners and other groups to rise and for religious extremism to spread as people seek solace while religious clerics take advantage of this vulnerablity and sow fear.
Protecting our rights and civil liberties
Civil society must lead where we know governments will not: in the protection of human rights and civil liberties. We know from experience that governments will be the main culprits dissembling and limiting information, stifling press freedoms and unleashing violence and extortion through enforcers of curfews.
Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya have already been flagged for overzealous security abuses resulting in the deaths of their citizens. We know that the pandemic and lockdowns will manifest differently on groups traditionally marginalized by society including disabled people, women and children.
Globally, reports of domestic violence are climbing and we can project the same for millions of West African women and children facing sexual gender-based violence, now stuck at home with their abusers. Access to sexual reproductive options and maternal and infant care could be deprioritized, especially when the composition of COVID-19 response committees are predominantly male.
While a few organizations are proactively engaged in funding hotlines and providing relief for survivors, more should be done.
Bottom line: In rising to the occasion let us – members of civil society – not succumb to the temptation of replacing governments in all their procurement glory. Handing out packets of food and providing masks and sanitizers is not where our strengths lie. Defending the marginalized, prioritizing the overlooked and contextualizing developments is what we do best.
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