“Corona Phobia” in Benin: Between Research, Social Dynamic and Sanitary Challenge
When the corona crisis swept over the world, it directly affected many a Cluster project. Two of which planned to host a workshop in Benin. Issifou Abou Moumouni recounts the days when the borders started to close down in the middle of March in West Africa and talks about the current situation in Benin.
By Issifou ABOU MOUMOUNI
Since November 2019, the world is going through a health crisis. Despite the fact that the appearance of Covid-19 may be part of the logic of socio-health cycles (appearance of an epidemic every 100 years since 1220), the health crisis caused by the corona virus seems to surprise the whole world. No country seems to be immune and Benin is now also one of the countries that face the challenge of containing the Covid-19 pandemic. I would like to share openly with readers the situation of Benin in its efforts to manage this pandemic. How did the disease enter Benin? What measures has the Beninese state taken to contain this crisis and how have these measures affected the activities of our research projects in Benin? What developments have occurred since its appearance? How is the population experiencing this period of global health crisis?
Effects on Cluster project
Benin is a country in West Africa, which covers an area of 114,763 km2 and has more than 11.5 million inhabitants. The first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Benin appeared on March 16, 2020, the date scheduled for the start of our two workshops in the framework of two Cluster projects ("Learning beyond the classroom: Coping with illiteracy in urban literate environments in Bolivia and Benin" and "Making a Living: Learning trajectories towards the ability to earn a livelihood"). This first case was a 49-year-old inhabitant of Burkina Faso who entered Benin on March 12, 2020. But a week before, the Beninese government had already taken preventive measures, including the recommendation to respect barrier gestures, the limitation of entries and exits at land borders, the systematic quarantine of any traveler who entered the territory by plane or by the overland route in case of suspicion. These last two measures deeply affected the organization of our workshops in Parakou that has not yet been affected by the pandemic. However, the project partners did not know that. As this information was not widely and internationally circulated, still at the 13th of March, one day before the German participants of the workshops wanted to leave Germany, the website of the embassy of Benin did not announce that it would be impossible to enter Benin without being put into Quarantine. To the last moment, there was a remarkable gap of information that made it difficult for our project to get the information about frontier proceedings, travel conditions and working possibilities.
As a result, the enthusiasm of the project team members (Carlos Kölbl, Iris Clemens and Rebekka Krauß) who were supposed to leave Germany faded to make way for grief and dismay. Only by calling Cotonou airport, they got the information about the new entry regulations. The planed workshops foresaw a double experience for them: the opportunity to experiment with the ECRIS methodology (Enquête Collective Rapide d’Identification des Conflits et des groupes Stratégiques) and the possibility to discover their research site within the framework of the two research projects. They were forced to postpone their trip to Benin, since they would have had to spend the duration of their stay on the containment site for travelers from countries affected by the pandemic. On the other hand, Erdmute Alber, coming from Ghana by the overland route, managed to reach Benin before the tightening of preventive border measures. She passed three days of self-isolation before returning hastily to Germany in order to escape the inconvenience of the imminent closing of the borders. The hard work of the organizing committee consisting of Sabrina Maurus and myself who prepared two weeks of common research for our German-Beninese research teams faded away when the decision was taken to not only shorten the envisaged research time but to finally suspend and postpone it to a later date.
In addition, international media reports not only quickly generalized fear and anxiety, but also predicted a hecatomb on the horizon in Africa. Diplomatic notes followed these disturbing forecasts recommended expatriates to return to their respective countries before the suspension of international flights and the closing of borders for an indefinite period in Europe. This led Sabrina to think, rightly, that it was better to return to Germany quickly.
But what has changed since the suspension of our activities in accordance with the instructions of the administration of the Cluster? Definitely a lot, even if it is not as dramatic as expected. However, I would say that Erdmute and Sabrina were right to take the decision to return to Germany. Since their departure, new cases have been detected and the Beninese government has taken new measures. But unlike many African countries, the Beninese government has abandoned containment measures judged as counterproductive considering Benin's socioeconomic conditions. Indeed, very few Beninese have a monthly salary and can wait and live several weeks without working. In such a condition, decreeing isolation would consist of letting everyone starve at once and for long time.
Pandemic measures in Benin
Therefore, the preference has been oriented towards certain measures. The main of them are:
a. strengthening control for the systematic quarantine of any suspect person;
b. the establishment of a cordon sanitaire in the South around the communes of Cotonou, Abomey-Calavi, Allada, Ouidah, Sèmè-Podji, Porto-Novo, So-Ava, Aguégués, Akpro- Missérété and Adjarra which are considered risk areas and isolated from the rest of the country;
c. the suspension of all non-essential public events of a sporting, cultural, religious (mass and prayer in mosques), political and festive nature;
d. the obligation to wear a mask in the area of the cordon sanitaire and its high recommendation in other parts of the country;
e. the suspension of courses in schools and universities until May 11, 2020, thus reducing significantly research activities without prohibiting them.
These provisions have clearly helped to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in Benin, one of the West African countries least affected by this pandemic. On May 5, 2020, Benin officially registered 96 confirmed cases, 44 of which were under treatment, 50 cured and 2 death. How is the population of Benin coping with the situation? To say the least, people of Benin, like everywhere else, are experiencing "coronaphobia", which has become a general phenomenon that can be found in both urban and rural areas. Corona is currently the most pronounced word in Benin. Curiously, it is not talked about in a burst of fear, but rather in a humorous logic disseminated on social networks with both sketches and songs, some of which aim to raise public awareness for the adoption of barrier measures. In these times of covid-19, the cordial formulas "santé" or "à tes souhaits" (bless you) when someone sneezes are replaced, with humour, by the expression "Corona" as well as when someone coughs. It is perhaps a way to de-dramatize the situation and to live it with more serenity.
Covid – a white affair?
The Beninese population lives the situation with a certain serenity visibly maintained by the relatively low number of detected cases and the negligible number of deaths registered until the date of May 5th, 2020 (two deaths). Many Beninese believe that the coronavirus cannot thrive in Africa due to climatic conditions. They feel that this virus would not withstand the heat. In the imagination of some Beninese, both in the city and in the countryside, the Covid- 19 is a “white affair”. This trend towards the westernization of the pandemic (without aggressive words but rather in a humorous impulse) is fueled by the rather dramatic and worrying results recorded in northern countries and which are widely mediatized. In terms of interactions, the advent of Covid 19 and the relative fear that accompanied it led to pseudo-stigmatizations of foreigners, especially coming from the prevalence areas of the pandemic. Before Covid 19, people from foreign countries, especially from Europe, the United States or China were coveted and had a rewarding social image. This representation was a bit replaced by the fear of the foreigner who is now, or at least temporarily, considered as a vector for the spread of the disease, therefore an individual carrying a risk with whom one must keep a certain distance. The advent of the Corona virus was also a vector of social dynamics among the population, which showed a capacity for adaptation and creativity. Since the government's recommendation to follow barrier gestures, the population is gradually adapting to the new requirements imposed by the fight against this pandemic. In this sense, regular hand washing is part of their habits, as is the wearing of masks - one can find all types - with a tendency of its spread across the whole country.
Legitimization of police violence
To some extent, the advent of Covid-19 also led to legitimize police violence. On the eve of Ramadan, it is the perfect time to celebrate marriages with a strong mobilization of the population within the Muslim community. These events highly risk to spread the coronavirus. Due to restrictions on the spread of Covid-19, public security forces do not hesitate to use violence with truncheons to disperse participants of wedding ceremonies, which are now undertaken at night to escape the vigilance of the police officers in Parakou for example. In addition, at traffic lights, it is now common to see public security forces brutally cracking down road users who do not comply with government recommendations. Another implication of the Covid-19 crisis is the development of new businesses, particularly in the urban centers of Benin. Coronavirus prevention measures are blossoming the trade of handwashing kits and hand-made masks. The main actors of this “new businesses” are welders, plumbers, tailors and retailers, who are all in high demand across the country. The hand washing kit consists of a metal Frame with two superimposed buckets, of which the one at the bottom serves as a receptacle for used water. The upper bucket provides a water tap or is connected to a piping system with a pedestal tap, which makes the device more hygienic. A soapbox is hung on it, too. These kits have become common in front of bank branches, pharmacies, shops, restaurants and at the entrance to all government offices. As for masks made from local fabric, young people have embarked on its marketing in all directions. Both the simple dressmaker and the great Beninese fashion designers have engaged on this new business. Some have not hesitated to put on hold all the other orders to give priority to the manufacture of masks in order to response to the demand of certain traders and companies. This activity is certainly flourishing because it does not require significant start-up capital but provides substantial profit due to the high demand. Since the government made it mandatory to wear a mask in the cordon sanitaire, pharmacies have entered a phase of mask shortage. In addition, in the run-up to the municipal elections scheduled for May 17, 2020 and the precampaign that accompanies it, politicians in search of voters have also embarked on the donation of hand washing kits and masks to the health centers.
Until May 5th, 2020, officially no confirmed case has yet been detected in the Northern part of Benin. Despite the increase in food prices due to the closure of land borders, the population lives in a certain tranquility but with caution. The sensitizations of the various actors and the restrictive measures of the government are bearing fruit. It should however be noted that the messages of awareness and orientation of the populations in the process of the fight against this pandemic are more accessible to the literate population because these messages are largely formulated in French. The website dedicated to this fight is only accessible to literate people. However, the illiterate population is informed by community radios, which disseminate information in local languages and social networks through various forums. In addition, the various measures taken by the government are disclosed in audio form and in the main local languages.
In total, it should be noted that the emergence of the Covid-19 and its rapid expansion have overturned all spheres of life. This pandemic seems to have defined and imposed a new calendar of human activity, which remains uncertain in the absence of an effective and sustainable solution. The health crisis resulting from this virus has affected daily rhythms, attitudes and behaviours in different ways. In Benin, the progressive measures taken have apparently allowed to dissipate the transversal fear that has been risen by Covid-19.
Transforming fear into opportunity
Immediate effects have been noted and concern the suspension or reorganization of various activities, which require gathering of people with an increased risk of spreading the disease. However, if Covid-19 prevented normal activities from proceeding at their usual pace, other businesses have developed. The manufacture and sale of kits make it possible to put into practice barrier gestures (hand washing device; disinfectants and face masks). Local artisans and various street vendors are in the spotlight at the moment, transforming fear into an opportunity. Covid-19 is still at the center of conversations and reflections in the country. The slow progression of the disease and the relative low number of confirmed cases and deaths maintain the hope of an imminent normal resumption of socio-economic activities.