Voices from our project partners about the Corona pandemic
Since the beginning of the Corona crisis, the world has been looking at the African continent. Horror scenarios have been forecasted and doubts about the reported numbers and the levels of testing have been ousted. At the same time, the strict lockdown measures in many countries have been regarded with a mix of reverence and dread of the economic and social consequences. Many African countries are forced to ease restrictions in the wake of rising numbers of cases as the strict measures can no longer be maintained. There is a lot of speculation about the long-term effects on Africa’s economic development and health in the future, and a biased picture on “the African continent” prevails, neglecting differences between the diverse countries.
HNU’s Africa Institute has interviewed project partners from universities in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa about their life amidst the Corona pandemic as well as their experiences with online teaching and working. The results will be published successively in a series of short articles.
Information on the spread of the virus
The availability of reliable data has attained much significance with the spread of the pandemic. The level of being informed and trust in official data is very different in the various African countries. Our Ugandan and Tanzanian partners cannot make any claims about the spread of the virus in their countries, whereas our partners in Rwanda, Botswana, South Africa and Kenya can give detailed account of the confirmed cases while doubts on the reliability of the data remain.
Engidaw Abel Hailu from Ethiopia: “It is difficult to judge whether the virus spread is increasing or not. The treatment and checkup centers are increasing and the number of cases is increasing as well.”
In many countries, it started with few imported cases in March and strict lockdown measures were implemented promptly. Nevertheless, as of July 2020, numbers are continuing to rise.
Promise Aseh Munteh from Cameroon: “In spite the fact that new measures have continued to be added and implemented the curve has not yet started flattening. […] This is to show you that we had a complete lockdown only for about two months and after that the government eased most of them. I am going about doing my work in the University and in town. The only difference is that we had to wear face mask in all public places. If you do not, the police will fine you.” In spite of the rising numbers, many countries can no longer maintain strict lockdown measures, whereas others are still hesitant to ease restrictions. Both strategies cause high economic and social costs. The effectiveness of the lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus is limited.
Caroline Kawila Kariuki from Kenya on the anticipated easing of restrictions: “I expect that to be done soon. Because despite the restrictions, the cases are on the pick now. So many people have been infected the numbers are going up by the day.”
Most international borders remain closed and in-country travel has also been limited in many African countries. Botswana, for example, was on a strict lockdown only for three weeks, but permits are still needed to move between the different provinces. During the strict lockdown, public transport was restricted to 60 to 70% capacity to guarantee social distancing. As a consequence, transport companies were operating at a loss because of the reduced revenues and threatened to go on strike. Many people depend on public transport to commute to work, also those employed in so-called system-relevant occupations. Thus, a strike would have caused a collapse of the system, so that the Botswanan government eventually was forced to allow busses to operate at 100% capacity with precautionary measures such as hand-sanitizers, face-masks, and registration of contact details. This is while other sectors, such as restaurants, are still subject to strict capacity restrictions and distance regulations.
Bus operators in Ethiopia have found a different approach; “the prices for transportations have been increased by 50-100% because the number of people is reduced to decrease the suffocation in buses” (Engidaw Abel Hailu).
A crucial role in the spread of the virus is attributed to truck drivers. Most forms of travel can be limited, but truck drivers are still required to cross borders in order to supply essentials. Strict testing and quarantine provisions for truck drivers are supposed to prevent cross-border spread of the virus, but lead to delays in the supply chains. Botswana, for example, is very anxious about trucks coming in from the neighbouring South Africa, where the numbers are skyrocketing, and has suffered from fuel shortages as its economy is highly reliant on supplies from South Africa. Truck drivers with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results are escorted to their drop-off points and out of the country in order to prevent any physical contacts on the way.
Effect on the economy
All interview partners agree on the pandemic’s devastating effect on their countries’ economies. Sectors such as tourism, restaurants, and luxury goods like diamond mining suffer from travel bans and the global recession. Especially in the tourism sector many people were laid off due to tourists staying away.
A significant number of jobs has been lost and especially small to medium businesses are closing down in all our interview partners’ countries. Many Africans work in informal businesses and depend on informal trade, without social security net. They are most heavily affected by strict lockdown measures.
In South Africa, price increases of more than 30% on essential items have been reported. In Rwanda, the lockdown and the restrictions of domestic and international travels has heavily hit the large farming sector, since food markets were especially affected by movement restrictions. Tanzania only implemented limited counter measures, but the economy is also hit heavily due to the global recession and mobility limitations.
Governments have taken different measures to alleviate the harsh economic impact on people’s livelihoods. In Botswana, for example, food baskets were distributed to those in need, because stocking up with food is not possible for those working in the informal sectors who depend on small daily incomes. Such initiatives, however, are vulnerable to corruption.
Working and studying from home and digitization
Just like in Germany, working and studying from home has become part and parcel of the new normal for many Africans. The learning curve in terms of digitization, video conferencing, and online didactics has been steep at our African partner universities, just like it was at HNU. However, it has also become apparent that this new development increases gaps and faces special challenges in the African context. Access to education now heavily depends on internet connectivity and expensive hardware; those in rural areas without sufficient electrification and internet access are excluded.
All our partners, even in the capital cities, report that unreliable data connections make online collaboration difficult. Internet connections are also expensive, which poses a challenge for lecturers and students. Monthly WiFi contracts are not common, so that students and lecturers may be coerced to spend extra money on their increased connectivity needs from home. Furthermore, not all students have laptops, which forces them to follow online classes from the small screens of their phones.
In addition to internet bandwidth, electrification is also an issue. South Africa, for example, is experiencing load shedding; this means that the electricity network is overloaded and electricity access is curbed for several hours in alternating regions. How do you call your colleagues when you’re located in different areas and never have access to electricity simultaneously?
Universities in Rwanda are making similar experiences, with digitization being the only possibly way to go, given the challenge that not all institutions have necessary gadgets to adopt to the new changes: “This is truly a new experience, and it might take relatively more time for every institution to get well prepared and equipped technologically. Although most of the higher learning institutions have the necessary gadgets to cope with the changing dynamics, still others struggle to catch-up. In my view, the online teaching mode is very useful but it will require more investment than it has been” (Nathan Taremwa, Rwanda). In some cases, online teaching has not proven viable at all – Engidaw Abel Hailu from Ethiopia: “The universities and schools are locked down and most of us are not doing anything.”
Promise Aseh Munteh from Cameroon shares a similar impression: “We are trying to adapt to remote working and teaching but it is not very effective because we do not yet have adequate infrastructures to support this. Shortage of electricity, low bandwidth for internet but we are trying to improve on this because virtual teaching and working is the future even after the pandemic.”
In terms of didactics, online teaching is also controversial, as it is more challenging to engage students and create interactive and participatory learning spaces. Hloniphani Maluleke from South Africa: “Personally, remote learning works best. However, it was and it is still hard to administer online learning course as Lecture's assistant (At the beginning we had students who did not have laptops and were forced to move back to remote areas where there's poor or no Internet connection.)”
In Tanzania, where no strict lockdown measures have been implemented, hybrid teaching models have been established: “We did not implement any lockdown measures and all classes are going on as usual for the past month and a half. Schools were closed from the end of March and opened on 1st June […] We do both physical and online teaching but online is done on choice and it is not mandatory” (Interview partner, Tanzania). Many other universities are also looking at blended learning and a combination of both in person and remote teaching models to reduce physical contacts while maintaining the benefits of personal interaction which is needed for a hands-on approach in certain subjects.
As online teaching often is not possible at a regular full course load, university lecturers also suffer economic hardship due to pay cut and delayed payments.
However, other project partners also report positive effects of online teaching on student attendance, especially in the area of part-time courses and PhD programs. Due to the elimination of transport times, it is easier for students to combine everyday life and university or, for example, to participate in classes from their home village.
Interrupted international education
Hloniphani Maluleke was supposed to spend a research semester at HNU in Neu-Ulm and had arrived just ten days before the pandemic hit Germany in March and international travel was heavily reduced. From one day to the other he had to return to South Africa as long as it was still possible. His projection of the situation in South Africa and globally is dim: “I was looking forward to completing the i4SC project, and I had to come back before I could even start and I should have started with PhD by June. They were easing of some trade regulation which made the infection rate climb higher because people were being hospitalised with alcohol-related injuries which caused health centres not able to admit people who were in critical condition due to COVID-19. It could take a year for more relaxed restrictions.”
Impact on culture
The Corona pandemic and the new rules of etiquette it has brought along also deeply affect culture. The shift is particularly noticeable in African cultures, where community and mutual support play a key role. Kagiso Elton Mpa from Botswana: “Gatherings for weddings and funerals are now restricted to 75 persons. This affects our culture deeply, as it is crucial to support each other in times of loss and large numbers of people normally attend funerals to show their support and keep the community together.”
The lack of social contacts and connections outside of the family is a big social issue. Caroline Kawila Kariuki from Kenya: “I miss getting in touch and connecting with people and making new friends.” Engidaw Abel Hailu from Ethiopia: “[I miss] Students and working with them.”
Like in Germany, there is special concern for children in the crisis. Stephen Kyakulumbye from Uganda: “We cannot work, our children who would be in schools are at home restless and almost getting traumatized of unknown reasons why they are locked up when they see concentrations of populations in city.” This is exacerbated by at times contradictory rules which are different for every sector and increase a sense of unequal treatment.
As grim as the situation looks, our partners are also able to see some positive effects. For example, Kagiso Elton Mpa from Botswana stated that he likes working from home, as it reduces travel times, increases productivity, and better accommodates people who work better uninterrupted by colleagues. Nathan Taremwa from Rwanda enjoys improved hygiene in public, less crowded city centres, and the culture of paying cashless, as well as having more time for family. Promise Aseh Munteh also appreciates the improved hand hygiene: “The habits I will like to be continued after the Coronavirus not necessarily the lockdown only, is the systematical washing of hands. Hand washing points have been introduced at the entrance to all public places (offices, schools, churches etc) and even in to private home. Hand hygiene is very important in the prevention of infections.” In general, good hygiene and more family time are the most popular takeaways from the crisis.
a warm thank you to our interview partners!
- Promise Aseh Munteh, Director of Cooperation, Assistant Course Coordinator HEPM, Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda, Cameroon
- Stephen Kyakulumbye, lecturer at Uganda Management Institute and Uganda Christian University, Kampala, Uganda
- Nathan K. Taremwa, University of Rwanda, Kigali, Rwanda
- Kagiso Elton Mpa, Master’s student at UWC, living in Gaborone, Botswana
- Hloniphani Maluleke, Master’s student and teaching assistant at University of the Western Cape, South Africa
- Interview partner from Tanzania
- Dr. Caroline Kawila Kariuki, Kenya Methodist University, Kenya
- Engidaw Abel Hailu, Assistant Professor, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Debre Markos University, Ethiopia