Researchers during lockdown (3)

Chloé Buire, geographer CNRS/IFAS-Recherche, © Manetov

Chloé Buire is a researcher at the CNRS (Centre national de la Recherche scientifique — the main French Research agency). She is a geographer and an urban anthropologist. Affiliated to IFAS-Research, she is based in Angola and her research themes revolve around Angolan civil society’s mobilization and empowerment. She is currently living in downtown Luanda. A lockdown has been implemented in Angola at the end of March.

The main consequence of the lockdown is that all the projects I had started with various collectives across the city are on halt. For example, I had been discussing the terms of a community mapping and storytelling workshop with a small NGO based in a peripheral neighborhood near Luanda’s refinery. This is not going to happen in the next few weeks as planned and even when the lockdown ends, I don’t know if the community will still be interested. Various academic events I was supposed to attend or organise have also been cancelled, which is disappointing and frustrating.  

Another direct consequence is that I have to work from home. Of course, it is not easy in itself but what I find the most challenging is to suddenly lose contact with the city. As an urban ethnographer, « feeling the pulse » of daily urban life is essential to me. Chatting informally with a passerby or a street vendor, catching up with the latest song played on a street corner, even simply noticing what is up on the billboards or how heavy traffic is often provides some glimpses on the public impact of certain events. 

Now I have to rely entirely on the official communication of the government shared by the media or on the rumors spread on social networks and then try to navigate between the exaggerations coming from both sides. 

So, this can probably be defined as « a form of research » but it also brings up new questions. For example: 

  • What does the communication chosen by the executive (press conferences, presidential decrees widely shared on social media) tell us about governing practices at large? How much transparent and reliable is this information? And what are the impacts of the mistrust widely expressed by ordinary citizens towards all official declarations? 
  • The President has profoundly reshuffled its government during the lockdown. Should that be read as a mere « emergency move » or rather as the stiffening of his political agenda on the longer term?
  • Before the lockdown, I started to follow the campaign launched by social activists for the implementation of democratically elected local governments in Angola. How do these activists re-orient their action under the state of emergency?

All these questions are interesting, but it is very frustrating not to be able to build enough material to start answering them and not knowing whether they will still be relevant in a couple of months. 

On a different note, it is very hard to have clear thoughts at the moment. I can only give a few bullet points at this stage: 

  • Many international pundits have emphasised how dramatic the spread of Covid-19 would be for ‘Africa’ because of the continent’s weak health system and structural vulnerability (economically, socially, in some instance politically or militarily and even physiologically). This unanimous pessimism is problematic in various regards. First of all, there is obviously nothing like an ‘African health system’; each country, and even each locality, should be analysed cautiously without simplistic generalisation. This has been partially corrected in the last week or so, with more attention given to the experience some African countries actually have in facing deadly epidemics.  The pessimistic view of ‘Africa’ is also problematic at another level: it prevents the emergence of alternative discourses about how people might actually cope in fearful times. If we only focus on the worst that might happen on a big scale, we lose sight of smaller acts where ordinary citizens are showing they do understand the risks, take action to protect their relatives and their homes, develop small scale solidarities. The figures so far suggest that the epidemic is not spreading as fast as expected in Southern Africa. In Angola, there are been only 25 cases officially registered to date. We don’t know why the curve remains so ‘flat’ or whether it will last or not, but it definitely shows that ‘worst case scenarios’ are not very helpful after all. 
  • In Angola, the state of emergency was declared in the form of a presidential decree (i.e. a text that emanates from the president himself, approved in Parliament but in practice not actually debated by MPs). In other contexts, we hear worried voices saying that this suspension of democratic procedures might alter the nature of the state at a deeper level. Here, it is actually very common. In that sense, the state of emergency is basically more of a continuation of the usual ways of governing in Angola than a radical rupture. To be a little bit provocative, I could even say that the state of emergency might eventually give the President a little more room to maneuver in order to break from the old logics inherited from the single party era. His new government is significantly smaller than the previous one. The Ministry of Finance recently announced that it would actually cancel many contracts instead of reproducing the usual practice in which the government keeps pressing its service providers even when it is unable to pay. A big scandal has also exploded around the ‘subsidies’ received by the MPs on top of their salary (some figures suggest that they amount to more than 260 % of their salary). Without going into toot much detail here, this has led to some unprecedented (and chaotic, and in many ways disheartening) efforts by the executive to speak about the national budget at large.

Reading tips  

I quite liked Jess Auerbach’s paper in African Argument published a few weeks ago. While the lockdown prevented her to launch her book on Angola more formally, she shares her thoughts on why we should be careful not let the epidemic lead us to picture Southern African societies as entirely dysfunctional, vulnerable and unable to take action in the contemporary world.

I also found Guillaume Lachenal‘s reflection on past epidemics in Africa very illuminating. Looking back at medicine in the colonial era or at the Ebola epidemic in Congo in 2014, Lachenal reminds us that the lack of material and human means that Europe is now experiencing has actually been the basis of African health systems for decades. He opposes the ‘Community Health Workers’ — who, in countries like Cameroon and Nigeria, are able to operate at the level of dense neighborhoods to bring minimal health support to the population — to the global discourses that insist on the use of new technologies to ‘geotrack’ people through their phones or deliver medicines by drones but are unable to understand the social mechanisms behind the epidemic. This text is to me a great example of what good social sciences grounded in long term engagement with African societies can bring in the current situation.

I found particularly illuminating the reference to a paper written by Paula Treichler in 1987, in the midst of the HIV epidemic in the USA . In this paper, Treichler questions the ‘epidemic of signification’ that surrounded HIV at the time.

I’ll make Lachenal’s final thoughts mine (roughly translated):

« We should beware of this will to interpret what coronavirus ‘unveil’… a whole industry of the ‘commentary’ has flourished, and we wonder now what coronavirus does not unveil … it is possible that all this does actually not mean anything. » 

“An office with a view, when I had an office…” © Chloé Buire