The problem with generalizations

Sean Jacobs

Despite the media's wish for a neat story, the African continent's response to COVID-19 is all over the map.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Interview by
Lena Reuter

The African continent was affected by the pandemic at a rather late stage. In South Africa, the curve rose very slowly, with the first case of COVID-19 confirmed on March 5, 2020. Further cases were followed by a prompt reaction from the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa: beaches, parks, schools, and playgrounds were closed by mid-March. The infections, which initially affected European travelers, are now spreading rapidly throughout the country, especially in poorer areas where people have little access to health care. South Africa is the most affected country on the continent. It is also one of the countries with the largest gap between rich and poor in the world. The virus makes this even more visible.


Would you give us your insight into the COVID-19 situation in your home country, South Africa? The country is in lockdown. How is the atmosphere in the streets? What measures have been undertaken by the government to protect its people, and how do people react?


South Africa’s government deserves credit for how it initially handled the pandemic. The country’s lockdown brought down the rate of new infections. As a result, it was praised by the World Health Organization (WHO). It made the response to COVID-19 by the US and much of Europe seem haphazard and irresponsible. The ANC government had been unpopular for a while because of the corruption, inefficiency, and indecisiveness associated with it. But President Ramaphosa’s leadership during the lockdown won some goodwill back. Even among whites, not usually fans of the country’s post-apartheid governments.

But two other developments were decisive. First, the lockdown was accompanied by excessive police brutality and abuse. In fact, to date, 12 people have been murdered by police and 230,000 others arrested. This all because they allegedly broke the rules of the lockdown, like having a drink in their yard (the government also banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes) or for sitting outside (most of those arrested are poor and black; townships are overcrowded, and people often sit outside). Second, for the lockdown to work it had to be accompanied by government programs like feeding schemes, food baskets to help poor people or those made unemployed by COVID-19 (many businesses had to close). But very little of this happened, and when it did, eventually, it was ineffectual as few people received the grants. Take into account that in South Africa, without a pandemic, the unemployment figure is well above 30%. So, the lockdown was accompanied by hunger. Scenes of long lines of people queuing for food became common.

From my interactions with family and friends who live in South Africa, it is clear that the rich and middle-classes, a mix of mostly white and some black, can insulate themselves from the ravages of the pandemic even if and when they do get sick. They can also afford to get a test. In Cape Town, where I was born and grew up, the epicenter of the pandemic is in the crowded townships. Over the summer the government relaxed some of the lockdown rules because of pressure—some real, but also frivolous and selfish (for example, middle-class people, mostly white, complained about being denied the right to surf or get a haircut, and took the government to court; it is telling that this was often accompanied by silence over the deaths and arrests). So, everyone’s watching to see how it will pan out. There is now a fear that South Africa may have moved too quickly with opening schools, for example, and that cases may still skyrocket.


The slogan “coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” is important to raise awareness. It is, however, not entirely true when it comes to the US: poorer people and especially Black and other racialized people are disproportionately more likely to come into contact with the virus, according to the Economic Policy Institute. How would you assess the situation in South Africa in this regard?


Like in the US, it is clear that if you are middle class or white in South Africa, you can insulate yourself from the effects of the pandemic. If you live in a suburb, basically the former white “group areas,” you have the resources to self-quarantine, and if you get sick or need to be tested, you can. It is not the same if you are black and poor.


You have published your research on media politics in South Africa and you live in New York, the state which has been among the worst affected by the virus. Do you notice a difference in media coverage of the situation in the US and South Africa regarding the crisis and people’s reaction to it?


Like elsewhere in the world, news in South Africa can consist of very little actual reporting, but a lot of opinion and “analysis.” That’s because journalism has suffered cutbacks. If you watch TV news, there are a lot of talking heads. But there is one major difference. South Africa is a black majority country and much of its media are public, especially broadcasting. I read, watch, and listen to South African media online. I also get articles forwarded to me via social media. While the private media is focused on those audiences who are attractive to advertisers (middle-class people and, in the main, white people), the media feel compelled to cover how black people experience and cope with the pandemic. In public media’s case, like TV and radio news, this is considered part of their mandate as broadcasters. But it is also clear that the coverage of how the pandemic affects people in the townships is often very general. And the poor are weaponized in the rhetorical wars between the middle class and the government, or between black and white middle classes over the government’s response. Because the media doesn’t do its job, there is a lot of fake or unverified information shared by lots of South Africans on social media, especially WhatsApp and Facebook. Luckily, alternative media are emerging, such as Politically Aweh and The Daily Vox.


Assumptions and estimated numbers of deaths by the UNECA, WHO, and others predict a horror scenario for the African continent. However, numbers are low, and many countries are dealing well with the situation so far. What is your opinion on that?


The response by African states cannot be generalized. It depends on the kind of regime, the region, the state of health services and infrastructure, how dense their cities are, among other considerations. For example, take authoritarian or one-party regimes, like Egypt, which suppresses information about positive cases, giving its citizens a false sense of security. Meanwhile, Rwanda sought to punish people who were caught outside during its lockdown by making them sit in the hot sun in an open stadium as punishment. South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria were exceptional for the use of force by the police. Madagascar promoted quackery in the name of “African solutions”—it has been exporting an herbal drink as a cure for COVID-19, despite there being no scientific evidence for this. There were reports that Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville bought up large quantities of the drink. It is no coincidence that they’re both authoritarian states. Ethiopia has been praised for its response using primary health care methods, however most African states lack legitimacy among citizens and had to resort to punitive measures to get people to comply with lockdowns.

The problem with generalizing about the African continent is that we did not learn much. I think instead of looking to the usual suspects in the West (Britain, the US, much of Western Europe), who dismally failed at protecting their populations (though Germany was an exception, at least initially), Africans should instead look to other societies with similar conditions, but where there has been success in containing the virus. For example, in Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala, people’s health and welfare during COVID-19 was viewed as a public good, the government got buy-in from the population, and they instituted mass testing.

This an extract from an interview Sean Jacobs gave to the Gerda Henkel Stiftung about Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Interviewee

Sean Jacobs, Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow.

About the Interviewer

Lena Reuter is Project Manager Public Relations and Communication at the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

Further Reading