In Africa, we are no strangers to public health emergencies. In the early 2000’s I was a journalist for the Anglican Church and watched as HIV decimated our communities. HIV/AIDS is the fifth largest epidemic in history, with 25 to 35 million deaths worldwide. Sub-Saharan Africa was the epicentre of the HIV pandemic - with South Africa worst affected.
With HIV the South African government resisted acting. It took years of hard organising by social movements and court action to force the government to act.
Yet, in a time when the economy is struggling, South Africa is plagued by power cuts, and our institutions are still crippled from years of state capture and corruption, we are seeing rapid decisions and actions taken in response to the Coronavirus.
When we can least afford it our nation is making changes.
The response has been remarkable in its swiftness and impact. For the first time, I am seeing our government, and corporates, willing to risk the status quo in order to deal with a crisis facing our nation. I am seeing new levels of collaboration emerge between government, business, civil society, and the church.
People have been encouraged not to socialise; sales of alcohol are banned after 6pm; gatherings of over 100 are banned, and companies are making staff work from home. The government has announced the construction of extra toilets in townships and a small business fund has been set up to protect the collapse of the small business sector. Even the private sector is getting involved. A local cell phone network is providing free data for online education as the kids all head home and try to learn whilst schools are closed.
These, if implemented, are truly groundbreaking steps in recognizing the needs of our people and meeting them - sanitation is crucial for dignity, hygiene, and safety; small and medium businesses are the potential jobs engine in a nation blighted by poverty and inequality, and online education will be essential to educating Africa’s rapidly growing youth population. All these actions should have taken place years ago without the need for the Corona crisis.
'The fact is the lack of human dignity, sanitation, education, and jobs has always been a major crisis - and ultimately the human consequences of not dealing with them will be catastrophic.'
South Africa is part of a continent that is facing many crises.
Africa is presently the centre of world poverty - by 2030 90% of the world’s extreme poor will live in Africa. Inequality is growing with only a third of African nations achieving inclusive growth, where economic benefits don't accrue only to the elites. We are facing the environmental crisis of global warming that will impact Africa, even though we didn’t contribute to the crisis. The world has until 2030 to reduce carbon emissions by 45%! A coming demographic explosion will see Africa become the centre of the world population and the youngest continent. By 2050 we will have added 522 million young people in Africa and will have more young people than any other continent. Africa is rapidly urbanising. By 2040 more than half of Africans will live in cities. Africa will see the growth of the largest cities ever seen in human history by the end of the century - with Lagos predicted to have close to 90 million residents by 2100!
Taking all these factors into account Africa probably only has ten years to build the foundations of a future economy that will allow the next generation to meet the needs of Africa's people whilst stewarding the natural blessing of our continent. On our present trajectory, we have little chance of achieving this and may face a future of massive slums, conflict, and starvation.. Something drastic needs to change.
Is this Corona crisis part of a moment of decision that will allow us to pause, reflect and prioritise what is truly important?
A friend of mine told me of her brother, who was sent home from school, and promptly announced that he would use the two week Corona quarantine to become a TikTok star! #Coronagoals. This young man recognized this was a fundamentally disruptive moment and even in his fear he chose to use the moment to achieve a dream and change the way the world saw him.
Could this strange moment of radical action become a permanent disruption? Once the virus retreats could we have corporately learned new ways of collaboration and living? Could our culture change? Could our institutions be reborn even more fit for purpose? What are our African and global #coronagoals?
It’s too early to answer those questions - but it’s never too early for Christian leaders to go to God to listen to his voice and try and discern how his Spirit is leading us in this new situation.
If Africa is going to develop it needs to do so through the strength and vision of its grassroots leaders working together in movements for the common good. We will need a movement of a million prophets rising up to speak abundant life to our continent.
Right now many of those prophets, activists and leaders, have been themselves disrupted by this virus. Events have been cancelled, finances are reducing, offices have been closed and focus is shifting towards the virus. The fruit of their hard work has been damaged and their future plans have been stripped away in a flash.
In this moment of deep disruption, anger and fear - we must find the moment to re-listen to God’s voice and together discern what God is birthing in the midst of this chaos. Whilst we try and make sense of this moment we can ask God to reveal the next steps we need to take into the future.
'We must ask God to reveal new vision, new priorities and the strategy to build new institutions that can help us navigate what a different economy requires. We must build a foundation over the next ten years to deal with the underlying crisis of poverty, inequality and environmental collapse.'
My #coronagoal will be to take myself before God and recommit to listening to his voice. I will be bringing together leaders virtually to try and locate ourselves and hear God’s voice together.
If there is indeed something unusual about this Corona crisis then we need to be ready to align ourselves with God and respond.
It’s not just in South Africa that systems are shifting and new ideas are being considered - in the UK Rishi Sunak announced in his budget that the government would cover 80% of employees wages if companies were unable to pay staff; in the USA Trump is considering giving money directly to ordinary Americans - not dissimilar to Andrew Yang's Freedom Dividend or the Basic Income Grant. Institutions like the airline industry or the oil companies are in danger of collapse or devaluation.
Perhaps a global moment is coming whereby we are able to increasingly see the value of human life over the value of the dollar. Where we invest in caring and relationships over the stock markets. That's a worthy collective #coronagoal for our planet.
That shift won’t happen by chance. Other forces will be working against any shifts that reduce economic benefits for the powerful. It will take all of our deliberate efforts to hear God, understand our role, build relationships and discern a new vision for the future together.
It will take a movement. It will take our commitment. Then, when we leave quarantine, we must act with courage to make it a reality.