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Coronavirus

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.
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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