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Covid-19 and Community Ownership in Cameroon

2 June 2020

By Mwalimu George Ngwane, Head of AFRICAphonie. (Photo: ‘Covid organics’ herbal treatment, by Archbishop Kleda.)

The fight against Covid-19 should leave no-one behind and no response ignored. A lack of community-led, people-inclusive strategies is a major problem with conventional disease management and research. This is especially true when fighting diseases that are sporadic, fatal, and viral, since local people and organisations often have the best reach and resources to help everyone.

Too often, communities are merely beneficiaries of a hand-out process rather than a hands-on outcome. This is the case right now in Cameroon. Top-down approaches leave life-saving measures only in the hands of a “Santa Claus club” (government, public officials, and elites), while disempowering local communities. Accountable to and responsible for the welfare of their citizens, governments are universally understood to have a duty to implement nation-wide responses to pandemics like Covid-19. Yet neglecting opportunities for a home-grown, indigenous response disempowers citizens and leaves them out of the conversation.

The balance of power in disease-management strategies should shift from solely public grandstanding to a focus on popular endowment. Strategies like using community radio, creating of local Task Forces, facilitating grassroots distributive economies, and enhancing traditional health responses stand out.

1.  Community radio

Using the common language of the rural community and understanding its needs, a community radio reaches the largest audience. Covid-19 messaging has been limited to our two official languages, English and French. Yet many Cameroonians prefer messaging in their Lingua Franca (Pidgin) or their indigenous languages.

In matters of opinion and belief, community radio has the power to be extremely persuasive, due to its independent status and ability to reach citizens in their mother-tongue. Unlike commercial radio, it can share information with the potential for immediate feedback.

2. Community inclusion

Task Forces present a platform for a local authority to share information while involving traditional and religious authorities, as well as community groups like women’s organizations, youth leaders and local NGOs. In the fight against Covid-19, community inclusion should be focussed on creating Task Forces in the communities.

Additionally, most communities already have village meetings or other groups that meet regularly. These can be utilised as forums to discuss and disseminate the information made available on community radio. In order to reach everyone, traditional communication agents such as Chiefdoms, Quarter heads, Town Criers, and placards should also be engaged.

3. Community economy

Protective equipment, including face masks, hand-sanitizer, hand-washing equipment, and soap, should be produced or purchased and distributed at the community level, rather than be ferried from urban centres. This would bolster grassroots distributive economies and create robust, shared wealth at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

4. Community traditional remedies

In America, Asia, and Europe, conventional vaccines against Covid-19 are already being developed. At the same time, local communities rely on herbal and nutritional remedies. Products from the artemisia plant and other herbs locally grown in our backyards have been developed by Archbishop Kleda and Dr. Fru. Professor Julius Oben has just carried out research on the potential of achu soup (Star Yellow) in managing the spread of Covid-19. Oben’s argument is that the dietary habits of a people determine the bacteria they host, as well as the functioning of their immune system and ability to manage certain infections. Certainly, our local diet is invaluable in maintaining health for all.

5. Community reconciliation

Since 2016, Cameroon’s minority Anglophone regions have suffered a protracted socio-political crisis, that has damaged their health systems and made them vulnerable to pandemics such as Covid-19. Indeed, its devastating effects can be likened to a pandemic; before Covid-19, there was what I call “COFID-16”. This stands for the Conflict Over Federalism, Independence or Decentralisation that was sparked by protests in 2016 and became an ongoing political conflict.

Can Covid-19 open doors to deeper dialogue and structural justice for Cameroon, as the 2004 Tsunami did in Indonesia’s island province of Aceh? In the wake of the Tsunami’s devastation, warring parties in Aceh realised the senselessness of fighting amidst such a calamity. Within 8 months, separatist rebels and the Government had signed a Peace agreement, insurgent groups gave up their struggle for separatism, and in exchange Indonesia offered a special autonomous status to the Aceh region. Can Covid-19 open the possibility for a permanent solution to COFID-16?

Mwalimu George Ngwane is Head of the Civil society organisation AFRICAphonie.