“There are decades where nothing happens and some weeks where decades happen”, the former leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin remarked over 100 years ago. We think that describes the state of the world — and indeed — the situation in countries around Africa in the past weeks.
As at the time of writing this piece, all countries in Africa, with the exception of Comoros and Lesotho, have recorded rising cases of Coronavirus. There have been over 10,000+ cases, over four hundred deaths have been recorded and almost a thousand people have recovered. Nations are experiencing either full or partial shutdown, and for the first time in a long while, over a billion people across the continent are living in ‘isolation’ or lockdown and practising the physical distancing protocol and a slew of other recommended practices to avoid the spread of the virus. Schools have shut down, several businesses have moved to remote work or closed operation, and wards are home with.
This is unprecedented in too recent times. And for a lot of people, we are learning how to not just cope, but thrive in spite of the challenge.
How will Africa and Africans flourish after surviving this crisis? First, it may be important to acknowledge that there are uncertainties about when the COVID-19 pandemic will peak, and what its other effect will be on individuals, organisations and the thriving of communities. However, it may be helpful to plan that this will last longer than a few weeks, or months. As one of us had shared elsewhere, everything will not go back to normal even when everything is done. Life as we know it has changed irretrievably, and more importantly, we need to know that this flux may not end anytime soon.
Accepting this reality — as if we had chosen it — is the first step towards building the resilience required to thrive both during and after this pandemic experience.
Zooming out on one another?
One of the first coping mechanisms we observed, in response to the economic effect of the pandemic, was businesses switching to remote work mode — for those who can. Millions of people are currently working from home. Several are unprepared for the responsibility of catering for the family, home-schooling the children and attending to work.
There has been a rise in the use of virtual meeting tools for several meetings — including cabinet meetings by government and team meeting across companies. Working from home has become both a norm and a moral responsibility for those who can.
As remarkable as this is, we need to be conscious not to build the foundation for unintended negative consequences, including the potential overwhelming feeling, stress and another looming mental health crisis. As one writer observed recently, our quarantine lives are starting to look as over-scheduled as our normal lives. And this may be more dangerous.
With just a few weeks into the lockdown, we can learn from the experiences of other nations and prepare to deal with similar experiences over time. A poll released last week in the United States, for instance, shows that “nearly half the people in the United States feel the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, demonstrating how the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated into a nationwide psychological trauma.”
This is similar to the psychological distress reported by survivors and contacts of Ebola virus disease infection and their relatives in Lagos, Nigeria, based on the findings from a 2014 cross-sectional study. Researchers at the King’s College London who analysed 24 studies, which were done across 10 countries and included people with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, H1N1 influenza, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and equine influenza have confirmed that the quarantine has a negative mental health effect and psychological impacts, including “post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, feelings of anger and fear, and substance misuse”.
The constant consumption of the news, non-stop rumour-mongering and spread of false conspiratory theories about the virus from prominent figures have not helped matters, rather it has led to more fear and panic among the people.
Those on the front line, including healthcare workers helping with dealing with the effect of this public health crisis, are unfortunately not immune to these negative consequences. Studies have confirmed post-traumatic stress symptoms in hospital employees even 3 years later they’ve helped fight a pandemic through isolation or quarantine. Hence the need to closely monitor their wellbeing for at least the next 3–5 years.
Helping people cope with the toll of being on lockdown on emotional wellness — and getting them to flourish after this situation is over — is a moral imperative for all.
The silver lining
Times as this are not all gloomy. As social beings, Homo sapiens will always find ways to build a connection with one another, and help one another stay strong, and stay human with one another.
We have seen this — from the interaction on social media platforms (and yes, all those online challenges count too), to people pulling resources to help support interventions to reduce the primary and secondary effect of this pandemic on others. We are seeing stronger bonds rise within communities and among neighbours. In times like this, people are finding creative ways to build connections with one another.
We are seeing more people opening up, talking about their experiences dealing with the virus, sharing their vulnerabilities stories daily — sharing anything that sheds light to brighten the path for others, reminding us that we can be human together, and that we are not alone.
“One 2010 study, for example, found that people who had gone through some adverse experiences in their lifetimes, like serious illness or the death of a family member, had better mental health and a greater sense of well-being than both people who had no history of adversity and those who had faced many hardships. What’s more, people who had faced some difficulties were the best able to cope when more tough times came their way.”, this recent piece confirms.
It reminds us of what Malcolm Gladwell explained as “remote misses” in his book, David and Goliath. Because we have shared this experience together, and survived it in spite of how difficult it was, it becomes easier to face the future with a deeper resolve that we will turn out just fine.
And maybe we just will.
Where love abounds
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives…Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes”, the almost 80-year Harvard Grant Study had reminded us.
But Africans have always known this, haven’t we? Aphorisms like Ubuntu — which reminds us that we are who we are through our relationships with other people or in other words, I am a human being through other human beings — have been here before it’s effects are validated by research. It is an advantage Africa has; one that we can hold dearly, and fall back on in the most critical of times.
We can start teaching resilience at home, among families, in schools and at places of work. We can show our loved ones how to be different, how to be fearless and how to love deeply. Love is universal; from the one we gift to ourselves to the one we provide for others.
Loving yourself will lead you to being grateful for the experiences you have. One of the practices for building resilience that we recommend is the daily gratitude journaling. It involves reminding ourselves daily the things we are grateful for. Just like the poet Ross Gay reminds us in his Book of Delights, individuals can keep a journal of the things that delights them — a way to remind yourself that we live in a world full of wonder. Organisations — from business to government — can incorporate corporate gratitude into their managerial practices (a disclosure: this is a practice we have upheld for several months at the company we work at).
A rise in social trust?
One of the metrics used in measuring the happiness of nations for the World Happiness Report is trust.
Strengthen trust within clusters in communities, within colleagues at work and trust in leadership of cities and nations. When trust increases, it reflects on the economy, and on human relationships. The Coronavirus crisis has made it easier to rethink our definition of who to get into the circle of our trust, what measures individuals and authorities can put in place to gain and improve social trust, and to what end it is essential.
But this will be influenced by how individuals and corporations adopt the very values that promote trust — values of transparency and vulnerability.
The business of businesses?
How businesses will be conducted across corporate and political organisations have changed. Either you are building an enterprise, a community, a company or a nation, the rules are changing — and at a rapid rate. Sometimes, it takes a major event — like one we are facing — to cause a cosmic shift in culture.
But when the shift occurs, the changes can last another generation (think about how GDP was popularised).
This may be a good time for governments to rethink everything — from how progress is measured, to what it considers important to how leadership — and start testing out macroprudential policies to help the people and economy grow. These policies must be people-first. As we are learning from the incidences of the past weeks, we will always find ways for economy to survive. However, the most important job for government is to ensure and promote the flourishing of the people.
And the responsibility doesn’t lie on the shoulders of government only.
The task for businesses owners and other stakeholders — read as government, policymakers and regulators — will be to find ways to save businesses and jobs, while ensuring conditions for them to rebuild are available. The toll this will have on the humans behind the businesses shouldn’t be taken for granted.
We understand that operating businesses may be a difficult and draining experience, however, for people and businesses to not just survive but thrive — apologies to Ariana Huffington — organisations must place a premium on the wellbeing of the people in the workplace. And this should be, not just to achieve a productivity goal, but because focusing on their wellbeing, prioritising their rest helps them become their best selves, it protects their health, their sanity and puts them in a better position to be understanding, empathetic and human.
The current crisis has, as an opportunity, provided a reset button, and time to rethink how we work, how we contribute to vulnerable communities, how we do business and our most treasured values. Like we learnt during the Great Depression, the AIDS epidemic and previous public crisis we’ve encountered, only by taking the gift of the reset, can we build a new generation of resilient people who through their conscious efforts can lead us building communities that truly flourish.
First published on ThriveGlobal on April 23, 2020.