Most victims of Covid 19 are anonymous.
Not in the case of the first person to lose his life to the disease in Senegal.
On Tuesday, March 31st, the West African nation was shocked by the terrible news that Pape Diouf, who became a Senegalese hero as the manager of the Olympique de Marseilles football team in France, had died of Covid 19 in Dakar at the age of 68.
He was the first Black man to captain a major European club saying his aim was to “demystify the cliches and show that Blacks are not better or worse than others.”
His death may wake Senegal up to just how deadly this pandemic is.
According to some of the contacts I made in Senegal, just three weeks ago while on my research trip to the Great Green Wall tree-planting project, the capital Dakar is still mostly “normal” despite the Covid 19 crisis.
There is a curfew from 8pm to 6am which in its early days was enforced with some heavy-handed actions by police.
Now it is respected. But most people still go about their business during the working day. They have little choice.
“This is a poor country,” explains Khadiatou Ba, independent producer and “fixer” for my recent trip to Senegal. “Many people live from day to day. If they don’t go out to work they have nothing to eat.”
Ironically, it is the richer areas of the city which are most affected. They are neighbourhoods whose residents travel regularly to Europe, America and Asia. The poorer neighbourhoods will sadly not escape, however. The infection will travel to those who service the richer areas and on from there. The poor can’t afford not to work. They live in crowded rooms, in crowded neighbourhoods.
If the infection travels out to the tribal people I visited in the impoverished Sahel, on the edge of the Sahara, which it surely will, it will attack people who have no defence against it in their huts of straw. Many have no running water.
The only defence Africa has against this disease is its youth.
There are an estimated 47 million Africans aged over 65, and 6 million aged over 80; out of a population of 1.3 billion. In Europe, the figures are 143 million and 40 million, out of 750 million people.
The infection rate in Africa is as yet very low, but this is more likely because of their lack of globalisation and means to travel in their own continent, than because of the weather. It certainly doesn’t denote any special African immunity, though I did hear the expression “The virus is racist” during my stay.
For these reasons, Ba explained, “60 percent of Senegalese aren’t aware of what’s going on.” The other 40 percent – including Ba – are scared. They are used to infectious diseases. They have gone through the Ebola scare and still contend with serious diseases from TB to malaria.
When I arrived at Dakar airport in late February, coming from a fairly nonchalant Europe, it was clear the Africans regarded me as a threat to their health.
This felt ironic, as I felt like a pin cushion from injections to prepare me for going to Africa.
They were right, though. I did pose a threat to them and in hindsight, I shouldn’t have travelled.
Having benefitted from a Simon Cumbers-funded research trip, I wouldn’t have such a lack of awareness again.
Africa and Europe are bound together by millennia of cultural population exchanges, and separated only by a sliver of sea.
It’s so clear that solidarity with Africa during the pandemic and solidarity in sharing any vaccine which is eventually produced, will be vital if global health is to recover in any of our lifetimes.