Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

The Threat of Coronavirus in Africa Flags a Deeper Crisis of Global Solidarity

The Threat of Coronavirus in Africa Flags a Deeper Crisis of Global Solidarity
A Unicef social mobilizer uses a speaker as she carries out public health awareness to prevent the spread and detect the symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus by UNICEF at Mangateen IDP camp in Juba, South Sudan on April 2. ALEX MCBRIDE / AFP / Getty Images

By Eddie Ndopu

  • South Africa is ground zero for the coronavirus pandemic in Africa.
  • Its townships are typical of high-density neighbourhoods across the continent where self-isolation will be extremely challenging.
  • The failure to eradicate extreme poverty is a threat beyond the countries in question.

As soon as the novel coronavirus criss-crossed the planet, defying borders and rooting itself in our daily lives, public health officials started singing from the same song sheet – warning those of us with underlying health conditions to be especially careful. I was in New York to see my neurologist when the Centres for Disease Control first publicly announced that the COVID-19 pandemic would disproportionately impact the elderly and people with serious underlying health issues.

As a young disabled man living with spinal muscular atrophy – a degenerative, motor-neuron condition that makes the immune system more susceptible to acute respiratory infections – I took heed of the call for vigilance and cut my trip short. With support from my US-based medical team, I fled New York before the dramatic surge in state-wide cases and returned home to Johannesburg on the eve that President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national disaster. At the time, South Africa had fewer than 100 confirmed cases.

That was just over two weeks ago.

As I write this on 31 March, 15 days into self-quarantine since my safe return home, our confirmed cases stand at nearly 1,500. We are now five days into a nationwide lockdown for 21 days in a desperate bid to flatten the curve.

Flicking through the news channels, I just heard President Ramaphosa address the South African National Defence Force in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief. Clad in full military camouflage, his directive was clear: "You are called upon to defend the people of South Africa against this virus."

For the first time since the dark days of apartheid, South Africans are bearing witness to the marshaling of the armed forces to restrict freedom of movement as part of a dramatic intervention to enforce social distancing on a mass scale. With winter fast approaching and with the highest number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Africa, South Africa is ground zero on a continent that has been all but forgotten in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Self-Isolation in the Townships

While I worry about the risk of exposure to myself as a young disabled man, I worry more about the risk of exposure to a continent that is completely ill-equipped to deal with this approaching tsunami. I shudder to think what would happen if South Africa – or the continent at large – became the epicentre of the pandemic.

For public health officials around the world, density control is proving to be the most effective tool in their arsenal to slow down the rate of transmission. But in townships across South Africa where millions of people live in crammed, makeshift houses perched on top of burst sewage pipes, telling people to stay at home and hunker down seems like a callous and potentially counter-intuitive prescription from a public health standpoint. In these densely populated communities, where there's no access to running water and where a single family must share one mobile toilet with at least 10 other families, how on earth do we expect this segment of society to diligently practice hand-washing with soap and water?

In addition to the concerns linked to containment and mitigation, I worry about the state's capacity to accord its citizens the economic safety net to weather the storm. South Africa – like the rest of the continent – is deeply indebted. In this context, the state is not in a position to craft the kind of economic rescue packages required to soften the blow from the havoc wrecked by the novel coronavirus.

Entrenched Inequalities

To grapple with these challenges, we must accept that in many ways the chickens have come home to roost in terms of persistent global inequalities and the monstrous neglect of the most marginalized segments of society. Because of our continued failure to invest in the eradication of extreme poverty and in the creation of economic and social safety nets for the most vulnerable among us – actions that underpin the SDGs – we have arrived at a historical moment in which entire populations face the very real possibility of being killed because of their own vulnerability.

The novel coronavirus is certainly a crisis, but alongside this crisis, we face a deeper crisis of solidarity and international cooperation. In the context of doing everything we can to flatten the curve, the case for self-isolation is clear. But when it comes to the broader context of global health and sustainable development, countries operating in isolation from one another threatens progress and prosperity for humanity as a whole.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who said that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Now more than ever, what happens to Iran affects Italy and what happens to Spain affects the United States. What I fear might happen to Africa will most certainly affect the world.

May this moment serve as a reminder that not only are we in this together, we are in actual fact bound by a shared trajectory. What happens over the next 21 days in South Africa might very well affect the trajectory of humanity moving forward, so we better pay attention.

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, a polluted nearly 2 mile-long waterway that is an EPA Superfund site. Jonathan Macagba / Moment / Getty Images

Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The National Weather Service station in Chatham, Massachusetts, near the edge of a cliff at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Bryce Williams / National Weather Service in Boston / Norton

A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Amsterdam is one of the Netherlands' cities which already has "milieuzones," where some types of vehicles are banned. Unsplash / jennieramida

By Douglas Broom

  • If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
  • So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
  • The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
  • The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.

Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.

Read More Show Less
Protestors stage a demonstration against fracking in California on May 30, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bill that would have banned fracking in California died in committee Tuesday.

Read More Show Less

By Brett Wilkins

As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Read More Show Less