Kunta Kinte Island (formerly Fort James) The Gambia, once an important site for the slave trade
(Niels Elgaard Larsen / CC BY-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
It comes as no surprise to find that Donald Trump contracted coronavirus. Since the pandemic became established he has insisted that it wouldn’t affect the USA, and that if it did it would be over very quickly. He has repeatedly questioned the value of face masks, refusing until recently to be photographed in public wearing one (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-masks.html) In the Land of the Free it seems that public health advice intended to stem the spread of the virus is of secondary importance when set against individual freedom.
Consequently it should come as no surprise that the USA has the highest cumulative number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, as these figures from the WHO COVID-19 Dashboard show.
Figure 1: Cumulative Daily Cases to 4 Oct 2020
Figure 2 shows that the USA has also recorded the highest number of cumulative deaths from COVID-19.
Figure 2: Cumulative Daily Deaths to 4 Oct 2020(Source https://covid19.who.int)
The USA is of course the third most populous country in the world with a population of around 330 million, so a very large cumulative case count is only to be expected. For this reason it is more revealing to compare the incidence of COVID-19 as the number of confirmed cases per million people.
Figure 3: COVID-19 incidence per million population
Figure 3 shows that the USA and Brazil are running neck and neck with the highest incidence of COVID-19 cases per million people. It’s no coincidence that the political leaders of both countries have downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and been very sceptical about the value of simple preventative measures like the use of face masks. Like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro the president of Brazil along with Boris Johnson, contracted COVID-19. All three leaders have downplayed the severity of the pandemic and have sought to minimise its consequences.
However, if you look carefully at all 3 figures particularly the third, the most striking feature concerns the figures for COVID-19 infections across the 54 recognised states in the continent of Africa, where the incidence has remained consistently low. In the early stages of the pandemic many commentators expressed serious concern about the implications of COVID-19 for the continent’s underfunded and over-stretched health-care systems (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/08/coronavirus-in-africa-what-happens-next) . Shortages of intensive-care beds, ventilators and staff, as well as a lack of expensive testing and tracing resources raised the spectre of the virus raging out of control and spreading like wildfire. The figures above indicate that this has not been the case. Nearly nine months into the pandemic, the overall levels of COVID-19 and its incidence in Africa as a whole are remarkably low.
There are several reasons for this. Journalist Afua Hirsch (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/21/africa-coronavirus-successes-innovation-europe-us) points out that the lack of health resources in many African states means that they have had to develop more creative approaches to the management of the pandemic. For example, scientists in Senegal have developed a cheap COVID-19 test (1$ per test) that yields results in ten minutes without the need for expensive laboratory facilities, this means the test can be carried out anywhere (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632823-700-cheap-and-easy-1-coronavirus-test-to-undergo-trials-in-senegal/). Senegal started developing plans to tackle the pandemic in January by closing its borders and implementing a comprehensive contact tracing programme. Consequently from 3 January to 5 October 2020 the country (population just under 16 million) has had 15,094 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 312 deaths (https://covid19.who.int/region/afro/country/sn). Ghana (population approximately 30 million) has experienced a similarly low incidence and death rate. The country introduced an extensive system of contact-tracing early in the pandemic relying on an extensive network of community health workers and volunteers.
So impressive have been the ways that many African nations (and others in the global south) have coped with the pandemic that the countries of the global north would do well to learn from their example. The Washington Post reports that unlike South Korea, Vietnam is not a wealthy democracy, neither is it a highly developed city-state like Singapore. But Vietnam has had only 318 known cases of the coronavirus, around 50 of which are active, and no recorded community transmission in a month. The country officially has no confirmed deaths from covid-19 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/05/16/when-it-comes-coronavirus-response-superpowers-may-need-study-smaller-nations/#comments-wrapper).
The problem is that the hubris of the global north renders its political leaders incapable of accepting that valuable lessons can be learnt from the global south. Donald Trump holds Africa and other nations of the global south in contempt, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he said at a meeting in the White House in January 2018 with US lawmakers to discuss protecting Latin-American and African immigrants (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html). Boris Johnson’s racist attitudes towards black people are equally as offensive. This is the man who described Muslim women as “letter boxes” in a 2018 column in the Daily Telegraph,and who in 2010 used the offensive and racist expressions “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” in articles about the Commonwealth and black people (https://www.indy100.com/article/boris-johnson-racist-keir-starmer-pmqs-george-floyd-black-lives-matter-9546586).
The contempt in which Trump and Johnson hold black people and nations is closely tied to the history of slavery that shames the past of the USA and the UK. But let’s all wish Trump a full and speedy recovery from COVID-19, in the unlikely hope that his infection may yet prove to be his nemesis.
Copyright: Philip Thomas, 2020