Covid-19 is among the deadliest pandemics the world has experienced in recent history. The African continent has, thus far, fared comparatively well with just under 150,000 confirmed infections and about 5,000 fatalities as of early June 2020.1 Even so, the heavy economic, social, and emotional toll of the pandemic on the continent is already clear, and some analysts estimate that the situation will worsen in the coming months. Given its underresourced health-care systems and lack of social safety nets, Africa’s best hope for mitigating the spread of Covid-19 lies in community-based prevention efforts. This will require very strong locally led campaigns of information dissemination, along with community mobilization and sensitization. We contend that Africa’s large youth population must play a prominent role as key drivers in the fight against the pandemic. Moreover, we argue for prevention interventions that are germane to communities’ social and cultural values in order for them to be fully engrained in their everyday life praxis.
This essay asserts that mitigation tactics should articulate innovative strategies that are suited to local conditions, rather than simply reproducing often incongruent and restrictive strategies from the Global North, such as social and physical distancing, lockdowns, and isolation. The majority of African urban populations live in crowded slums, working in the informal sector. There are numerous examples of how social distancing violations have led to confrontations between people and the police.2
Not the “same old” response
Africa is the youngest continent in the world, with more than 70 percent of its population below the age of thirty and an average age of twenty.3 However, African youth constitute a disenfranchised majority dealing with socioeconomic and political challenges that stem from deficient education, high unemployment, and political marginalization. Despite these challenges, many young Africans are savvy entrepreneurs surviving and thriving in the informal economy. They dominate the internet and digital spaces, and many are creative innovators and steadfast community organizers. The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to empower the youth and harness their energy, creativity, and knowledge to drive prevention campaigns, especially given that they are seemingly less vulnerable to the new coronavirus.4 In fact, young volunteers are already involved in a myriad of actions to support their communities. They have focused primarily on: 1) mitigating contamination through communication and accessibility to information, control of digital spaces, and provision of health and related services; and 2) promoting community cohesion and social solidarity with appreciation for local values and kinship bonds, and with support for the most vulnerable.
Communication and accessibility of information are critical, as lack of information, misinformation, and disinformation about the pandemic can be widespread in both in the real and the virtual worlds. Young people are using social media platforms to communicate and disseminate this information as well as organizing within their communities through canvassing campaigns and public awareness programs alongside community leaders.
In Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Joseph Tsongo, a young leader of the Amani Institute, enlisted a group of young volunteers to visit markets, town squares, and businesses and go door-to-door distributing informational pamphlets on how to stop the spread of Covid-19. Their efforts are creating a space for young people to show engagement and leadership.5 In Burkina Faso, the National Youth Council established Battalion 2020 against Covid-19, a training program on health, sanitation, and social measures for 1,500 young volunteers working in various communities across the country. In addition, young Burkinabe leader Emmanuella Toé and her colleagues are collaborating with the Femmes Riposte Covid-19 (women’s response to Covid-19) program to produce informational pamphlets urging people to wear masks and respect physical distancing guidelines. Isaac Olufadewa from Nigeria is a young man running the Slum and Rural Health Initiative that has produced “Stop Covid-19” infographics in more than sixty local African languages to spread accurate information about the pandemic.
Social media influencers,6 musicians, poets, painters, social and political activists, and television and sports stars are using their own talents and social platforms to reach out to others. Through social media campaigns, catchy song lyrics, spoken word and poetry, and cartoons and art in local languages, their interventions have reached millions of people. In Mozambique, the popular reggae fusion band GranMah released “Lava as tuas Mãos” (wash your hands), a video with instructions on proper handwashing techniques and alternatives to handshakes. In South Africa, the famous Ndlovu Youth Choir composed, performed, and filmed a musical rendition of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Covid-19 safety advice, featuring translations in various South African languages.7 In Côte d’Ivoire, Ibrahima Diabaté and the Youth Peace and Security Network recorded a series of awareness-raising videos in different local languages to propagate information about the new coronavirus. All of these videos went viral on social media platforms, especially Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The use of local languages and the cultural translation of the messages in ways that make sense to the communities they target have enhanced the accessibility of information.
The control of digital spaces has been an ongoing battle for many young activists on and beyond the continent, with many building their own independent platforms to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Stowelink, a youth-led digital enterprise in Kenya is gathering and disseminating up-to-date, accurate information about Covid-19 in English, Kiswahili, and Amharic. Also, in an effort to curb fake news and quell panic, two recent graduates of the University of Cape Town established the Coronapp–a tool that centralizes information flow about the pandemic.8 In South Sudan, Nelson Kwaje from #DefyHateNow launched a digital community of youth from various fields who collaborate to fight misinformation and raise awareness on coronavirus prevention. Likewise, the Community Mutual Aid Crisis Response online platform created by Mbiydzenyuy Ferdy, a young Cameroonian entrepreneur, connects people in need of assistance with service providers and community volunteers.9 Online digital platforms are also bringing together young people and the wider population to share ideas and prevention practices. In Uganda, using the slogan “Our challenges, our solutions!,” a group of young people from Zetu Africa (Our Africa) launched the campaign #SmarterThanCorona to bring people together to share information and discuss solutions to problems caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Beyond creating accessibility and sharing reliable information within their communities, young people in many countries have also taken an active role in providing access to preventive health services and equipment. In Kenya, Victor Odhiambo, a young entrepreneur, and his team at the Garden of Hope Foundation raised money to set up several handwashing stations in Kibera.10 In Cameroon, a group of young people started the One Person One Hand Sanitizer initiative. They produce homemade hand sanitizer following WHO guidelines, and to date they have produced and dispensed over 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to communities in need and disinfected neighborhoods and public spaces in Douala. The initiative is now supported by the Cameroonian Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Ministry of Health.11 Collaboration with government institutions often facilitates the work of volunteers and bolsters their impact through the use of state resources. Perhaps the greatest show of solidarity has been the production of masks in communities across the continent, made in Kente cloth, Ankara fabrics, Capulana textiles, and more. Indeed, from Nigeria to Liberia to Mozambique, young people are at the fore of mask making and distribution. The masks are donated to medical institutions, made available to the public for free, or sold at discounted rates.
Enhancing community cohesion and solidarity
Combating Covid-19 requires a strategy that also addresses the social, cultural, and emotional consequences of the lockdown, widespread illness, and death. Youth networks have been involved in initiatives that strengthen social solidarity through the provision of support to affected populations. People’s lives are shaped by particular values and systems of meaning that make the world intelligible to them. Information about contamination and calls for behavioral changes are more effective when embedded within local understandings of sociability and interpersonal relationships. The majority of Africans live in community.12 The Zulu notion of Ubuntu means that we are all bound together. Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu (I am, because we are) speaks to human interconnectedness and represents the various threads that bind together the human spirit.
Likewise, the Swahili notion of Ujamaa, espoused by Julius Nyerere, represents familyhood, extended family, and brotherhood or sisterhood. Similar concepts exist in other languages and cultures across the continent. The spirit of community brings human beings together and fosters love, cohesion, and solidarity; it is apparent in the way African communities live, work, celebrate, and mourn. In moments of great strife, solutions and problem-solving are undertaken by the collective. This is evident in responses to past epidemics, such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS, when strong kinship bonds and solidarity were key to facilitating not just community ownership of the problem but also collective action to address the spread of disease.
Young volunteers leading Covid-19 campaigns are connecting with and engaging local leaders–women’s groups, teachers, priests, imams, village heads, healers, and elders–in their communities. Together they are devising microsolutions needed to isolate patients, care for the ill, implement social distancing within existing conditions, and support families in distress. For example, more effective physical distancing measures tailored around family units (often consisting of extended families) rather than individuals, will favor household cohesion and collective action rather than individual responsibility. This approach draws directly from people’s interconnectedness as in the Ubuntu and Ujamaa philosophies.
Given the lack of social safety nets in most countries on the continent, young people have included support services and foodstuffs as part of their interventions. These initiatives, along with showing leadership, constitute strong expressions of social solidarity. In Kenya, young leaders Wevyn Muganda and Suhayl Omar cofounded Mutual Aid Kenya, a grassroots disaster relief organization that collects mobile money donations from Kenyans to buy and distribute food packages to poor households in Nairobi and Mombasa.13Additionally, in Côte d’Ivoire, Mahmood Ouedraogo, an activist for deaf youth, approached several businesses in Abidjan for food donations to support hearing-impaired people and their families.
In various countries across the continent, Scouts groups have launched community-level Covid-19 response initiatives in active collaboration with the authorities, NGOs, and the private sector. In Ghana, Scouts of the Ashanti region teamed up with a local branch of international fast food restaurant chain KFC to provide hot meals and water to vulnerable families. In Kilifi, Kenya, Scout groups launched the “lend a helping hand” project and are distributing relief food packages to vulnerable communities. In Cape Verde, Scouts are teaming up with the Red Cross in the supply of relief items to families in need.14 In South Africa and Botswana, the Rover Scouts are running errands, grocery shopping, and delivering items for families unable to leave their homes. In the DRC, Scouts are providing street children with temporary shelters, food, and face masks. In Namibia, they are spreading messages of love and solidarity and encouraging people to stay home and stay safe.15
These are some examples of countless initiatives already taking place at the local and national level. While the majority are spontaneous and isolated, others are collaborative endeavors between youth-led civil society groups, civil society and community-based organizations, government institutions, and regional or international bodies. These types of partnerships are significant for various reasons: firstly, they allow youth to engage with the public, private, and third sector; and secondly, they afford youth–often seen as apathetic and uninterested in general social welfare–a level of legitimacy and authority they might not attain were they operating unilaterally. This is especially true given the leadership roles that elders have traditionally held in the community. While elders can instill a sense of authority in community-based responses, young people bring new ideas, knowledge, and technologies. These coalitions can reduce generational tension and lessen existing generational divides.
Concerted efforts by the authorities to facilitate volunteer platforms for youth in the prevention of the pandemic are similarly important. This is not to say that all youth interventions will merit support, as some might be misguided or based on misinformation. However, African countries would benefit from engaging with and supporting young volunteers who are developing positive and impactful interventions. As noted in the foregoing examples, state resources can help facilitate and scale localized youth-led initiatives. Moreover, state databases and dissemination resources could help identify gaps and greatly improve the delivery of service provisions. Lastly, given the sometimes contentious relationship between governments and independent youth groups, state support of youth-led anti-Covid-19 work could serve as a way to build trust and collaboration between youth and government.
This essay and the examples herein serve to counter the dominant negative narratives about Africa’s young population. We postulate that young people are an undervalued and largely untapped resource, often seen as apathetic or negatively disruptive. While we acknowledge that, as with all segments of a given population, they are not homogenous or driven by the same aspirations, it is critical to move beyond the deficiency perspective toward an asset-based approach. Although this pandemic will have devastating health and socioeconomic effects on the continent, it also offers the potential opportunity to rebuild trust and begin rewriting the narrative of Africa’s young people. We have highlighted the many pockets of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship on the continent that must be engaged with, and harnessed, to effectively mitigate the impact of Covid-19.
1. ↑ The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking this data. For more information, see https://africacdc.org/covid-19/.
2. ↑ Addisu Lashitew, “Social Distancing Unlikely to Hold Up in Africa without a Safety Net for Microentrepreneurs,” Brookings Institution, April 9, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/09/social-distancing-unlikely-to-hold-up-in-africa-without-a-safety-net-for-microentrepreneurs/.
3. ↑ Data from Worldometers; see https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/africa-population/.
4. ↑ Recent analysis shows that malnutrition and disease may render young populations vulnerable to the virus.
5. ↑ “Coronavirus in a Context of Conflicts and Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern DRCongo,” Amani Institute, May 4, 2020, https://amani-institute.org/2020/05/04/coronavirus-in-a-context-of-conflicts-and-humanitarian-crisis-in-eastern-drcongo/.
6. ↑ Social media influencers have access to a large online audience (thousands or millions of followers), and they are able to influence them by virtue of their authenticity and reach.
7. ↑ Jayathma Wickramanayake, “Meet 10 Young People Leading the COVID-19 Response in Their Communities,” Africa Renewal, April 3, 2020, https://www.un.org/africarenewal/web-features/coronavirus/meet-10-young-people-leading-covid-19-response-their-communities.
9. ↑ Most of these cases are presented on the website “Young Leaders in Africa Responding to Covid-19,” One Young World, https://www.oneyoungworld.com/ambassadors-africa-coronavirus.
10. ↑ “Young Leaders,” One Young World.
12. ↑ We understand “community” as a symbolic construct based on perceived boundaries; people can belong simultaneously to multiple communities. See Anthony Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community, London: Tavistock, 1985.
13. ↑ April Zhu, “Five Ideas on How to Ease the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdowns in Kenya,” The New Humanitarian, April 6, 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2020/04/06/kenya-coronavirus-lockdowns.
14. ↑ “Scouts across Africa Support Communities in COVID-19 Response,” Scout.org, April 17, 2020, https://www.scout.org/scouts-in-africa-respond-to-covid-19.
15. ↑ “Scouts across Africa,” Scout.org.
*This piece was first published in Social Science Research Council https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/06/11/covid-19-in-africa-youth-at-the-fore/
Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Alcinda Honwana is the Centennial Professor of Anthropology and International Development and strategic director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is also a member of the Advisory Board of the SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa. Professor Honwana undertakes research on political conflict and politics of culture and the impact of war on children, youth, and women, as well as on youth politics, social movements, and political protest. Her most recent books include Youth and Revolution in Tunisia and The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa.
Nyeleti Honwana is the cofounder of Global Black Youth, an organization that convenes the world’s most innovative, disruptive, and entrepreneurial young Black leaders and supports them in generating knowledge and solutions that transform their ability to impact the world. She is also a program officer and lead organizer of the Young African Scholars Program at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation (HFG).