COVID-19 In Ivory Coast, Where Social Distancing Is Nearly Impossible

Self-quarantining is a concept incompatible with a culture that helps the sick and greets them with open arms.

Muslim worshipers at the Kumasi mosque hoping to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire.
Youenn Gourlay

ABIDJAN — Ousmane is bored stiff in his family's courtyard. Stuck at home since March 16th when Ivorian schools closed for 30 days, the young man seems paralyzed by the threat of COVID-19. He hardly goes out anymore and says he scrupulously respects every government decree, including the particularly difficult one of keeping at least one meter between yourself and other people in public places.

"I'm very careful; This disease scares me. I try to stay away from others, but once I get home to the yard, it's impossible. In the evenings, there are over a hundred of us living here: the Compaoré, the Kouanda, the Zangré," explains the young Abidjanese, pointing to each of the twenty-two small houses planted around this courtyard. Many of the small houses are too hot and too badly ventilated to keep anyone inside for the entire day.

Today, with just nine confirmed cases, the Ivory Coast is not yet on lockdown. Suspected cases entering the country are theoretically quarantined in one of 2,000 rooms provided specifically for the epidemic. But the first isolations are already being tested — and subsequently stopped — by the Ivorian government. And if even the state can't isolate 200 to 300 people properly, some worry about what will happen next.

In Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast, life happens outside. There are many gathering places and constant congestion in the hundreds of wôrô-wôrô (collective taxis) but, above all, in the thousands of gbaka, the small vans converted into buses, where passengers continue to pile in every day. These places, already suspected of harboring highly contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, are once again being singled out.

"Who will help us live?"

Yet these means of transport — always crowded — are 10 times cheaper than a private taxi. What choice do citizens have? Biata Compaoré, who shares the same courtyard as Ousmane, is full of dismay. "We're obligated to use them to pick up our goods at the port," says the shopkeeper, who is nonetheless very aware of the risks involved.

"In Africa, distancing yourself from others is a luxury."

"In Africa, distancing yourself from others is a luxury," says Francis Akindès, a sociologist and professor at the University of Bouaké. In today's urban Ivory Coast, contact is omnipresent. "If you add that 46% of the population here lives below the poverty line, you can imagine how many poor people are living on top of each other."

Traders can still work at the Anono market in Abidjan, although the mayors of each district now have the freedom to close down these essential hubs, responsible for providing many families, if they so wish. This is beginning to worry Esther, a telephone saleswoman, with a mask on her face and a bottle of hydro-alcoholic gel on the stall. "If they decide to close everything and then lock us up, who will help us to live? If we don't work, the Ivorian state won't be able to support us like in France or Italy," she says. "We really can't afford to stay at home here."

Muslim worshipers in Abidjan in 2018 — Yvan Sonh/Xinhua via ZUMA

With a population of 25 million, Ivory Coast has a 92% rate of non-official employment (i.e. without a contract), which means life takes on a day-to-day dimension. The closure of certain economic sites and the potential confinement of the population would be catastrophic, according to anthropologist Issiaka Koné. "In Africa, we don't have a work-at-home culture; People won't do anything anymore. It will put a strain on the family budget and the cost will be exorbitant for the population." According to Koné, this loss of income could even generate "petty crime" if this already fragile population becomes even more disadvantaged.

For the moment, only a few people can be seen wearing masks in the streets of Abidjan. "If people don't have a loved one affected by the disease, they don't believe in it. There is a kind of disbelief towards the phenomenon and the measures aren't being respected," says Francis Akindès, drawing on his research from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa between 2013 and 2016.

There's something that worries him in particular about the local customs: "Everyone visits the sick, shakes their hand, wishes them a speedy recovery and gives them money," the sociologist explains. "It's a culture of sharing, speaking out and compassion. Socialization is everywhere." Confining oneself or withdrawing from society is unacceptable, financially and culturally.

Everyone visits the sick, shakes their hand, wishes them a speedy recovery and gives them money.

Even during the country's violent political crisis in 2002, Ivorians found it difficult to confine themselves to their homes. "Soldiers were on the streets and the curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. was generally respected. But on the weekends, the middle class organized parties. there was a resistance to confinement as a deprivation of liberty. Living alone is looked down upon. It's considered to be living "like a white man" or is "morally poor," Akindès explains.

"Here, we say that family is invasive but we can't — and won't — live otherwise," continues Issiaka Koné. "The relationship between the individual and the community is a very African ambiguity: Its principals oppress us, but we need it when times are bad."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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