Public Trust, Capacity and COVID-19: Early Lessons from Africa

Some African states should be lauded for their response to the pandemic; for moving quickly, for using best practices learned from past health crises, and for deploying scientifically-based solutions—all while Western leaders dithered. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director of the Africa CDC, observed in late April that the rapid reaction explains the slow infection rate across the continent: “This is a lesson we learned from the Ebola crisis in West Africa. We intervened quickly, with the means, knowledge and proven social partners in the communities”. Social distancing and infection control were used in earlier efforts to contain tuberculosis and Ebola. Analysts note that even educational pamphlets on tuberculosis and HIV have been, with some changes, repurposed to educate the public about COVID-19. Early assessments also underline that during this first phase of the pandemic, it is local civic groups, community organizations, and village leaders who enjoy the trust of the population, who are leading the effort to contain the pandemic. African commentators are understandably still very apprehensive. The Senegalese daily 24 Heures recently ran a headline “La grande inquietude” (The Great Worry); but it is also heartening to see African states with limited resources tap local knowledge and leadership in a time of crisis, showing that the continent is not simply a passive victim.