African public health responses to Covid-19: make your own masks, quarantine, and don’t stigmatize

Africa Covid-19

The resounding Western public health response to Covid-19 has been “Stay at home, stay 2m away, wash your hands”, from the UK Government to #TogetherAtHome

However, public health discourses differ across communities. In many African countries, the triple message of ‘home, distance, hand-washing’ has been combined with other advice, such as wearing masks and information on how to make your own, the need to quarantine, and a call not to stigmatize others. Covid-19 campaigns across Africa also respond to another key aspect of African societies: multilingualism.  

Our understanding of coronavirus is based on medical research and evidence, but public health discourses are embedded in cultural and political contexts and reflect cultural, social and linguistic differences. Understanding these differences is essential for successful public health campaigns and for encouraging behaviour change – which is key in stopping the virus.  

Although still controversial in the West (WHO advice is mixed, although many Western governments now encourage the use of face masks against Covid-19), the use of face masks is widely recommended across Africa. South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize recommended wearing masks on 10 April, and since 20 April, wearing of face masks is mandatory in Tanzania’s largest city Dar es Salaam. Grassroots activists are promoting the wearing of masks, such as 10millionmasks or the International School in Zanzibar

homemade masks
Photograph: Sarah/Unsplash

Following the recommended public health advice, though,  is often hampered by lack of resources and infrastructure. Face masks are industrially produced, for example in Ghana and Nigeria, but across the continent, demand exceeds supply. In response, creative solutions to supplying face masks abound. Designers and NGOs offer face masks made from kanga and other fashionable African cloth through online shops and social media. Public health advice includes advice for making cloth masks yourself, in addition to advice about how to wear masks. Similarly, grassroots public health advice includes instructions for making your own hand sanitiser

Quarantine, rather than social distancing, is another common theme in African public health campaigns. People entering Zanzibar, including foreigners and returning residents, are required to be quarantined for 14 days. There is often clear guidance distinguishing between self-isolation, quarantine, and social distancing

Social and racial prejudice in relation to Covid-19 in Africa are being taken up in health campaigns and in social media. There have been instances of public protests against those infected by Covid-19 and public prejudice seeing Covid-19 as a Chinese or Western illness. In response, the Zanzibari Ministry of Health has issued campaign posters warning against such stigmatization: “Sio kila mzungu au mchina ana korona. TUACHE UNYANYAPAA” – ‘not every Western or Chinese person has coronavirus. Let’s stop stigmatizing’. 

Left: Zanzibar Government ‘Don’t’ stigmatise’; right: Uwezo Wema Hand in Hand Eastern Africa face mask from off-cut fabrics

In addition, many public Covid-19 campaigns in Africa are multilingual – a feature which has been missing in many campaigns in the West. Covid-19 information is published in the 11 official languages of South Africa by the government, NGOs and activist groups. On social media, health information is shared, including, for example in Somali Sign Language. Grassroots projects such as virallanguages provide multilingual information online or on the ground – e.g. the Liliema project in Senegal. Yet, in view of the more than 2,000 community languages in Africa, much more concerted effort is needed to reach everyone on the continent. 

Professor Lutz Marten is Professor of General and African Linguistics at SOAS, and Dr Hannah Gibson is Lecturer of Linguistics at the University of Essex, formerly British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SOAS University of London.

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