Covid-19, the return of the State to Africa? – Point

The Covid-19 epidemic has created serious constraints and attacks on freedom. Many experts and intellectuals (media) have given in to fear coupled with distrust: fear of the virus, whose knowledge was evolving day by day (which is normal, but scary), and distrust of governments that would have to various moments of the crisis changed their minds to hide a certain inability to foresee and therefore to … govern! The contrast is striking with the Chinese regime, which is based on state capitalism coupled with political control of society, and which has managed to protect its population: 1.4 billion inhabitants and only 4,638 deaths ( according to “official” figures of May 26, 2020).

Admittedly, we know that the figures produced in such and such a country are today impossible to compare: people screened, number of tests carried out, compilation of deaths, etc. Nevertheless, the governments of western democracies have found, empirically, hot, a source of inspiration in the Chinese system to justify their own rhetoric of health control in the name of a precautionary policy; in this, the Covid-19 offered them a certain social rehabilitation. And it was ultimately easy since the population is afraid and since the figures for unhappiness are produced by the States themselves.

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Dynamic and organized crisis management

It’s a fact: over the past two months, we have witnessed a form of reconquest of peoples by the State, which first focused on a global approach to the epidemic: its dynamics (international displacement people and, by an astonishing shortcut, globalization as a threat) as much as its health coordination (embodied by WHO, whose directives were taken up or castigated, in good faith or not). This reference to the global was concomitant with a clearance of local errors: it is not my fault, it is that of China, says the West; it is that of Europe, says France; it is that of the West, says Africa. And now the whole thing is undermined – the trial of incompetence and partiality made to the WHO. Lo and behold, the most liberal governments have come to favor borders, short cycles, industrial patriotism. And here we rediscover the merits of the strategic state, arbiter of knowledge, holder of authority for the common good: the paternal state of societies that have suddenly become infantile.

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The Covid-19 epidemic is the ultimate demonstration of this return to the border and to the state. Ultimate, but by no means new: epidemic and state have always gotten along. Certain historians (see in particular William Naphy and Andrew Spicer, 2003, Black Plague. Great fears and epidemics, 1345-1730, Otherwise) argue that the European bureaucratic state, the model of the contemporary state, was born from the need to organize, to govern the social and economic management of the plague epidemics that have struck Europe since 1345 (coming from China… already!) Until 1730.

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The return of the strategic state?

However, and this is another fact, this return of the State is not the prerogative of Western democracies fascinated by the efficiency of the Chinese State. It is also so for African regimes, in a way that is sensitive, imaginative, original and unexpected. States in Africa, ordinarily subject to overhanging, if not postcolonial, representations as much as to suspicious compassionate speeches, go from bankrupt, corrupt and neopatrimonialized to inventive, foresighted and experts of their society. If we can discuss each of these terms, put them into perspective depending on the country and remain cautious about the results of the pandemic, one thing is clear: the States in Africa have nowhere been “weak” since they are once again become prescribers of standards, directives, closing of borders, publication of figures.

Their choices for coping with the pandemic were also very unique, specific, making the image of an “African response” to the epidemic untenable, which would suggest that there would be a country called “Africa”, or that African states would have a unique strategy, just as the speech of the “announced catastrophe” is inadmissible.

African states reacted by playing on two registers. The first was to draw from the toolbox of measures proposed by the WHO: closure of land and air borders, schools and universities; ban on gatherings; confinement ; blockade of cities; curfew ; wearing a mask; selective screening with hospitalization of patients; quarantine of suspected cases. Not only did each State select from this offer what seemed opportune and realistic, but it very generally redefined the terms: size of gatherings, proportionality of (partial) confinement, hospitalization (sometimes asymptomatic cases which were worth isolation). In short, the States decided, they made an act of sovereignty and they were far from blindly following the global instructions.

Second characteristic of the reaction of States in Africa: adaptation in real time to the evolution of the situation, not so much medical or epidemiological as social, economic and political. More fundamentally, the arbitrations will often have been simultaneously health, socio-economic and political, and not successively, as in many European countries. Is this not the sign of the return of the State to Africa, which is more of a State that makes choices, of a strategic State?

Of course, the effectiveness of these postures of States in controlling the epidemic cannot be guaranteed to date: any more than can the health trajectory of the epidemic be by simple modeling which would not take into account takes into account the measures taken by States, their mode of application and the reactions and consequences they have aroused.

There is therefore no question of giving a blank check, or a “good point” to African States. And, if we take things from the point of view of society, it is not certain that the State is everywhere “back”; at most it will have aroused dissatisfaction here, there criticism, here again rebellions against the law. On the other hand, it is essential to place the responses of these African States, diverse, not necessarily coordinated, in the global concert of those of all States around the world: if we are willing to take the trouble to go beyond and Particularizing an illusory “African response”, then we will see that the States in Africa have marked their uniqueness – in short, they have made their return.

Read also Africa: How the closing of borders has limited the spread of Covid-19

* Fatoumata Coulibaly is a geographer, university of social sciences and management of Bamako.

** Gilles Holder is an anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

*** Laurent Vidal is an anthropologist, representative of the IRD in Mali, research director, Research Institute for Development (IRD).

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