The COVID-19 virus has already wreaked havoc across the east and the west, yet shows little sign of stopping soon. Loved ones are sick and dying, businesses are shut, movement is restricted, workers go without wages, and children go without school. Health systems are stretched beyond their limits.
But as philanthropists, we must also pause now to consider the next wave of devastation that is coming. It is already becoming evident that the virus is spreading rapidly into the developing world, where its impact is likely to be disastrous.
At this stage, there is no question that the virus will cause deep damage in Africa. Now is the time to act. And this is where philanthropy can help.
Africa is at risk
If you picture only poverty and need when you think of Africa, you are mistaken. Six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are African. One in three Africans are defined as ‘middle class’. And Africa has brilliant, vibrant, progressive and diverse populations, thinkers and leaders.
But in many African countries, scarce government resources make for weak health-care systems, scant public health resources and limited access. For many African nations, the current health burden already includes a number of circulating dangerous infectious diseases. The continent faces significant challenges of population disparity. And the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over.
The population at risk is significant, and the possibility of adding another virus is a concerning one.
Capacity for community
In the face of hardship and challenge, African communities have shown resilience and managed to respond in ways that not only protect the most vulnerable but also allow for people to help each other. Community has been shown time and again to be one of the most essential elements of African society.
However, African community-based organisations are invisible to the rest of the world – seen as too small, too local, or too immature to effect real change. They are none of those things – but here is what they are, and why they’re so crucial especially now.
- Communities and families are often the only social safety net that exists. African extended families and the communities are critical systems of support, especially in areas that are not well serviced by government.
- In times like these, community-based organisations are even more critical. The AIDS epidemic that ravaged southern and eastern Africa showed the world how critical community-based organisations were to prevention, treatment, care, and support. Over decades of coping with AIDS, these organisations not only grew into community health mechanisms, they also acted universal safety nets, supporting family livelihoods and caring for the children.
- Community organisations will be on the front lines of preparedness.Community organisations can act as extensions of often sparse government health systems, as well as important prevention and de-stigmatisation messages that are critical in any government prevention, preparedness, or response.
- Community organisations will be on the front lines of response. In areas where access to government is scarce, community-based organisations are best able to identify the families most in need, support children of parents who are sick or quarantined, and rally the resources to help others cope.
- Community organisations are authentic communicators when it is needed the most. Stigma, rumor, and superstition have to be countered, and community-based organisations are critically placed to authentically counter any behaviors or beliefs that might be detrimental in the face of the threat. They will also be crucial in mitigating forces of nationalism, tribalism, conflict and violence that may flare up in the face of devastation from COVID-19.
- Community organisations will be on the front lines of recovery. The devastation will be deeply felt in many communities. People will suffer extreme loss on multiple dimensions, and critical to helping with recovery will be organisations at the community level.
- Community-based organisations allow families to stay together. During the HIV/AIDS crisis, many children were separated from their families through loss or extreme hardship and found themselves in orphanages. Community-based organisations support families to stay together and prevent child-family separation.
Nina Blackwell is the Executive Director of the Firelight Foundation.