Helen Kezie-Nwoha[1] and Angeline Nkwenkam Nguedjeu[2]

Our culture in Africa shapes our identity. We proudly refer to ourselves as Africans. This sense of pride emanates from our very rich cultural and social norms. All over the world people have cultures that they cherish and inform their beliefs, norms and social practices.

As Africans, our lives are built around our communities and our social networks which constitute our families, friends and neighbours. But most importantly, we have cultures around sickness and death and our traditional forms of healing and dealing with mental health. In Africa people and our shared culture are inextricable.

This paper highlights how the responses to COVID19 by African governments are eroding our cultural and social norms and by implication our identity as Africans, which are critical for addressing trauma impact of COVID-19. It suggests that responses to COVID-19 in Africa should factor in cultural practices and norms, including mental health and wellbeing to reduce vulnerabilities and ensure sustainable post COVID-19 development. In today’s world and with the expansion of science, pandemics are no strange occurrence, as such how do we prepare African societies to face them while protecting norms intrinsically linked to our identity. Publications abound on the socio-economic, peace and security impact of COVID-19, however, the anthropological and psychological impacts have not received much attention.

African culture around sickness and death is found in activities such as cooking, visiting, praying, collective mourning, and burial ceremonies among others. Traditionally we live communal lives, we show care, we share pain and have different ways of supporting our communities in sickness and death. In our cultures for example when a member of the community dies, we all converge to cry, sympathize and plan the funeral. For the bereaved, burial ceremonies include staying together and crying collectively as families, friends and the entire community gather to bury the dead. In some culture family, members will wear white or black for a specified period. Communities quickly make stay over plans, sometimes up to two weeks to ensure the immediate family are not left alone in pain. If they need to talk, they have someone to talk to and cry if they need to cry. This way of living has helped heal trauma and ensure mental wellbeing is given attention. Very few people will seek medical support to deal with trauma from loss. Even though mental health services are available, we still lack enough mental health service providers and awareness for communities to seek such services. So for many Africans, response to trauma resulting from pain and loss is collective and supported by our socialization.

Not long ago, the Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa led to turmoil in community settings of the countries affected. Most communities in these countries are still healing the trauma created by Ebola and the exclusion associated with treatment and death of Ebola victims and their families. One of the challenges with controlling Ebola was families taking their dead loved ones for burial. A common factor among the countries most hit by Ebola (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, CAR, DRC) is the fact that they were conflict-prone countries with already fragile community fabric due to prolonged turmoil and displacements. The COVID-19 pandemic in contrast now affects all countries many of which have comparably intact social fabric. Given the longer-term risks for countries and the reality of a global recession triggered by the pandemic, social distancing becomes a strategy of unprecedented magnitude. A pandemic like COVID-19 is threatening known concepts like community of care, trauma management, stigmatisation and psychosocial support.

While social distancing and States taking responsibility for burying the dead are acceptable as a preventive measure, we need to reflect on how to close the gap created by this new practice to collective healing in our African culture. A major aspect that is missing right now in the response to COVID-19 is mental health and wellbeing of survivors during and after the pandemic. With the huge number of deaths being experienced and how the bereaved have experienced loss, the trauma associated with the current response need to be evaluated and properly planned to prevent more damages. Families need to be supported to practice acceptable forms of burials that will help with closure and healing from loss. A conversation with communities is required so that the decision making around this is inclusive and sensitive to the different cultures in Africa.

Our experience working and responding to conflict and humanitarian situations reveal that mental health is never on the agenda of actors on the frontline of ensuring safety and care for the population, in this case, the world. COVID-19 like war is creating immerse psychological human suffering that is leading to trauma. Many communities are prone to social gathering in different ways, many people are separated from families and many have died all of which lead to trauma. The response to COVID-19 in Africa should be based on the realities of African societies. African Governments need to develop robust cultural sensitive trauma healing programmes during and in the aftermath of COVID-19 that will support communities to heal. Trauma awareness-raising needs to be intensified in order to protect our communities and reduce vulnerabilities without eroding our societal value systems.

[1] Helen Kezie-Nwoha, Executive Director at the Women’s International Peace Centre, Kampala, Uganda

[2] Angeline Nkwenkam Nguedjeu, Peace and Development Advisor at the United Nations Office f the Resident Coordinator, Congo Brazzaville.

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