News & Media / COVID-19 in Africa: Youth Perspectives – Rama Salla Dieng

COVID-19 in Africa: Youth Perspectives – Rama Salla Dieng

08 July, 2020

How are young people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected young people everywhere in many different ways. The differentiated outcomes of the pandemic have been felt in families, caring facilities and nurseries, schools, and universities everywhere including in Scotland where I teach. In Africa as well, institutions of (higher) education have also faced challenges to transition from physical classrooms to digital spaces from Kenya to Zimbabwe due to uneven access to internet and appropriate technologies. However, it is far from being all ‘gloom and doom’: digital technologies also hold the potential for more inclusive digital classrooms and avenues to engage further with critical pedagogies in unprecedented times and resist the increased marketisation of the university. 

But there are also more complex challenges linked to re-opening schools now. In the rural areas of Northern Senegal for instance, the government’s decision to re-open schools on 2 June posed a difficulty to both parents who were expecting their children in urban zones to cultivate the fields, and in off-farm activities as the local crop season corresponds to the rainy season (June-September). Local media have reported cases of parents who have refused their (mostly male) children, to return to school in Velingara and Kolda, in the South of the country.

This shows that the socio-economic outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people are also gendered. For instance, in many African countries, it has also increased levels of gender-based violence against women and girls. In Kenya, for instance: a third of all crimes against children reported since the beginning of COVID-19 were related to sexual violence. In addition, in many African countries, state emergency measures have often been accompanied by increasing levels of digital surveillance and police brutality. The latter happened in Mathare, Kenya, and some areas of Dakar,  Senegal to give a few examples. Therefore, we need for a feminist intersectional policy response to address the social, economic as well as political impacts of the pandemic. COVID-19 also affects young people’s opportunities and livelihoods.

In its fourth report, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warns against the life-long potential effects of the pandemic which is disproportionately affecting young people with disruption to employment and income losses, greater difficulties in finding a job, and interruptions in training and education. It further establishes that over one in six young people have stopped working since the beginning of the COVID‐19 crisis, and that even those who stayed employed experience a fall of 23% in their working hours. All the above will no doubt have an impact on young people’s mental health and well-being.

What role can young people play in prevention, response, and transformation in combating COVID-19 in Africa?

I think young people everywhere have a key role to play in their families, communities, and schools. And these roles can range from awareness raising to community sensitisation, to sharing novel ideas and safeguarding human rights. The evidence documented so far suggest that young people across the world are organising and rising up to the challenge and their responses are diverse: from fighting fake news in South Sudan, to conducting awareness and hand washing campaigns in Haïti, to supporting more vulnerable members of their communities in Kenya and Switzerland. 

But young people are also leading responses in their countries through innovation. I will give you two examples from Senegal: the first is that three engineering students from the Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique (ESP) have conceived robots and automatic sanitiser dispenser. As for the second example, it involves public universities in Senegal who have also joined in by launching recently a very promising and innovative programme: “100,000 Students Against COVID-19” . It plans to involve 100,000 out of the 145,000 university students that Senegal has in 2020. By promoting active citizenship to finding a collective and collaborative response against COVID-19, the programme allows students who wish to do so (regardless of nationality or specialty) to become volunteers in the service of the Centre for Emergency Medical Operations (COUS) which leads the Senegalese government’s response to COVID-19. All this illustrates the diverse ways in which young people today exercise their agency to challenge the status quo and epitomise active and exemplary leadership.

I think we also need to commend the African Union Youth Envoy Aya Chebbi for her leadership and proactive initiative: The Africa Youth Charter Hustlers can be a powerful tool directed to African governments for accountability and advocacy, especially regarding service delivery and dignified responses.

How can we strengthen innovative communication tools between institutions and the local community both online and offline to help tackle COVID-19? 

I think the first step to strengthening ‘innovative communication’ is really costless. It requires a paradigm shift for those institutions and local community to take young people as experts of their own lives, and equal partners who want to be part of the solution. Accounting for almost 60% of the African population in 2019, young people need to be taken seriously and we need to move past dichotomic constructions of youth as either a ‘threat’ or an ‘opportunity’ if we are to find a long-term collective and collaborative response to the consequences of COVID-19 in Africa.

In addition, we need to encourage digital spaces and digital cultures of contention (Zayani 2015Karekwaivanane and Mare 2019) but we must not forget that democracy or citizenship is not just a moment (vote), but a more solid social contract between leaders and community. Indeed, this contract can and needs to be strengthened by multiplying avenues of engagement and accountability both online where youth can be found and engaged and offline spaces with community leaders such as traditional and religious authorities. 

What lessons and best practice can African countries learn from each other and Ebola response to help slow the spread of COVID-19?

My response to this question will be focussed on the country I know best: Senegal whose response to COVID-19 I have found exemplary (until recently). I think there is a lot to be learned not only from Ebola, but also from AIDS. I mention HIV/AIDS because as in Zimbabwe, there is stigma associated to Coronavirus in Senegal. And learning lessons from HIV/AIDS, health professionals are involving community-based organisations to inform, sensitise and raise awareness in order to dispel myths and deliver services to vulnerable populations. And as was the case with Ebola, there is also a dynamic of scapegoating especially foreigners and re-framing of the contours of belonging (us vs them) which can be addressed with advocacy and cross-cultural dialogue.

In addition, the Centre for Emergency Medical (COUS) interventions I mentioned earlier which was set up in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak in the country is leading on the response to coronavirus. 

How has your country responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The strategy has mostly consisted of testing as widely as possible in order to gauge the situation, treating and finding a bed for every case (even with mild symptoms). And until June, the main containment strategy was a curfew and not a full-lockdown (which would have harmed the livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations) and the shutting down of schools and nurseries, as well as mosques and churches.

This seems to have worked well so far but many are now questioning the government’s decision to stop the state of emergency and remove the curfew. Let’s hope for the best!

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