France 24: Your book "In the Company of Men" deals with the Ebola epidemic. Can we make a comparison with the Covid-19?

Véronique Tadjo: The first big difference is that, in the case of the coronavirus, it is a pandemic. The Ebola epidemic was localized in Africa, although there have been a few cases here and there in the West. Ebola therefore has an African identity. Furthermore, the economic impact has mainly affected the West African region. If the Covid-19 left China, it quickly reached the rest of the world. Today, we realize that the virus does not belong to anyone, it breaks into our life. The similarities come from the very human reactions we have to death. Finally, it is simply the contexts and our chances of survival that differentiate us.

What are the lessons learned by different African countries after Ebola?

You can see from the way the various West African governments reacted that they take things very seriously. Many very strict health measures have been adopted recently. Have they waited too long when in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, the epidemic had already entered? Certainly.

But the virus took a long time to cross the Sahara. And then there was this false hope that this time it was a virus "from the North". Faced with this pandemic, does Africa have the means to face the crisis? Rather, we should have bet on community health. Governments have not gone far enough in reforms after Ebola. They have not really learned from the lessons of the past.

You grew up in Ivory Coast and lived in South Africa. What do you think of the management of the pandemic in these two countries? Do you have fears and perhaps hopes?

These are two very different countries. Côte d'Ivoire is an emerging country with a history marked by colonization and still under the influence of France. Several economic crises and the recent post-electoral civil war of 2010-2011 have weakened it considerably.

In South Africa, there are several levels of development within the country. It is an economic and industrial power that has no equal on the continent. And yet, there is a very great poverty in the black population, which is the majority, with overpopulated 'townships' which lack everything: unemployment, etc. Apartheid remains a very heavy legacy. I still have the hope that South Africa will be able to manage this health crisis. But will the government win public confidence?

In Côte d'Ivoire as elsewhere, it will be necessary to win the support of the populations through transparency, clear messages, sincere economic solidarity, as well as the example of the elites.

Exactly, do the elites have a role to play? In many African countries, politics often comes before the rest. How is this weakening the continent and how can it be remedied?

The elites enjoy many privileges, well nourished, well educated and well paid. They are now expected to succeed in rising above their own interests and to become a progressive force. Lobby governments so that politics do not take over and distort priorities. There should be a more active civil society supported by a middle class aware of its weight in society.

You also talk about the behavior of men in the face of epidemics in your book. What do you think of the current behavior of men in the face of Covid-19?

It is not much different than in previous epidemics. We think we are living in an unprecedented situation today, however the history of humanity is strewn with great epidemics that have shaken the world. Historians, psychologists and writers have spoken of human behavior that is found everywhere: slowness of the authorities to react for political reasons, rumors, denial, fear, massive distance from cities, destruction of social relationships, ordinary individuals becoming hero, while others abandon the collective ...

We know that in many African countries, following good hygiene rules is complicated. In some regions, residents do not always have access to water and there is a lot of promiscuity. You talk about it in your book. How to deal with all these factors that are contributing to the spread of the pandemic? Can we change habits?

We are not equal before death. Our chances of survival diverge enormously. As the pandemic wreaks havoc, wealthy nations are struggling to get as many masks, breathing apparatus and medicines as possible. Huge sums are released. But the countries of the South do not have these means. In this context, can we really "change our habits" when whole families live in ten in tiny rooms in common courtyards with neighbors in the same situation? Social distancing and confinement are a luxury they cannot afford. Add to that the lack of access to drinking water and the power cuts and you have a time bomb! Traditions are not at issue, it is poverty that is. Yes, as we have seen for Ebola, we can change our mentality out of necessity, but that requires numerous awareness campaigns and infrastructures.

Some beliefs also make it difficult to fight the spread of the disease?

Absolutely! Particularly zealous evangelical pastors claim that they have the capacity to "destroy" the virus by the power of prayer. The faithful therefore refer to God rather than to health measures. For them, the virus is an evil spirit that can only be stopped by faith. In a way, it is the expression of great despair. They have lost all confidence in their government, only a miracle can save them. The danger is that this kind of belief is opposed to scientific efforts.

What lessons do you think will be learned from the current crisis? Do you think the world will come out changed?

The idea that we could resume our life as before is unbearable to me. We knew the planet was in bad shape but we had no idea that the deadlines were so close. We will win, you have to believe it. But at what cost ? We have lost our innocence - naivety or arrogance, some would say. If that doesn't push us to change the way we live together, then bring the rockets and let's all go to Mars!

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