Posts Tagged ‘Covid-19’

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Abidjan miniatures 5

December 28, 2020

Getting a Covid19 test.

Hey, never mind that you have to do an expensive Covid19 test before you board an aeroplane and that you have to fill in a bunch of forms online using a government website that (surprise, surprise!) has decided to declare permanent war on me…but still. You can have a bit of fun while you’re at it, right? And yes, for most Ivorians, getting a Covid19 test at €76 is eye-wateringly expensive. Incidentally, I parted with a vastly more eye-watering €202 for a similar test in a private London clinic, which was rejected as by the Ivorian health authorities on arrival at Abidjan airport. My passport was confiscated and I was made to take yet another test, at – you guessed it – €76. Add to this the test I did at Mali and that amounts to a cool 400 euros paid for tests in the past four months, whose results were checked precisely ONCE. Neither Bamako (departure), nor Paris (transit), nor Abidjan (departure) I can now report, nor Brussels (arrival and transit), nor Amsterdam (arrival, twice!) were interested in my test result, negative of course. This feels like scratch that: this bloody IS money down the drain.

However, the Covid19 test operation in one of Abidjan’s eight dedicated test centres allowed me another peek in the city’s positively gigantic, constantly innovative, highly flexible and therefore thriving parallel economy. How? When you can’t pay for your test online, for instance, because no credit card. Or when your phone cannot answer questions on a government website. So how do you these things? Follow me.

Or rather: follow the guard, across a busy road, across a terrain where there is a place that sells beer and food (of course, you’re in Abidjan), along an open space and then through a small gate towards a block of flats. Very loud local music called zouglou (much more about that in exactly three days’ time) is playing its upbeat, humorous and topical songs. The first Covid-related tunes emerged here and in Dakar.

‘This is the place,’ says the guard who I have been following. It’s not much more than a simple alcove under an apartment block and it’s run by a fast moving young chap. He sits at his desktop computer and rapid fires the questions that are on the form I cannot fill in.

“Hang on, this country of yours…what’s it called? Holland?”

No that’s only the Western part of it, in fact.

“So, Pays-Bas, then?”

We find the name of my country listed, inexplicably, as The Netherlands. The rest of the list is in French. Weird.

“How come such a tiny place has three names?” By this time we are laughing out loud.

Well, technically, it’s only two since Netherlands and Pays-Bas essentially mean the same. We also have two capitals…well, one official one of course – it’s where I’m from – but the government is in another city…

More laughter.

In short, we’re starting to have a good old time of it. We go through the rest of the form (you have to announce your planned itinerary, which in these Covid times is entirely hypothetical) and we part as best friends. I pay him and he processes my payment for the test; he prints out the receipt and the other forms and he gets 3000 CFA francs (€4,57) for his invaluable service. As I am walking back to the test centre, the guard brings in two others. Covid19 is not only good for government and clinic business…

Back at the testing site, the remarkably patient crowd that has been sitting in chairs for hours before being let into the temporary building is now bickering over whose turn it is. Clearly, the chair system has broken down somewhat.

Meanwhile, me and a fellow test victim are trying to work out how much the Health Ministry is raking in from this new effort. We arrive at yet another eye-watering moment… Let’s say 100 people go to these test sites per day. We have eight of those so that’s 800 people paying CFA50,000. That’s 40 million francs – 61 thousand euros. Every day. Niiiice… How many days are they open per week? Six. Only Sunday’s they’re closed. So that’s at the very least 24 days per month, 25 on average. That is a very cool one billion francs per month; one and a half million euros.

Before all this can truly sink in it is time to be led into the Waiting Room, which is a smallish place where there are notices, a television set and an aircon. I am forever trying to escape these monsters because they make me ill. So to the great amusement of the staff on duty, I move as far away from the cold air blasting thing as possible. “Ah, so you are running away from the cold air!” says a doctor. “Now you have become one of us…” Cue helpless laughter from his colleague and yours truly…

And there, in the corner, is the tiniest Christmas tree in the country. The shopping centres have already gone full tilt into Christmas mode but even when you are being tested so as to make sure you are not caught up in a global epidemic, here’s a tiny reminder of the festive season, before you have your papers being verified once again, you’re being told about the procedure and you’re subjected to the decidedly unpleasant but mercifully brief invasion of your nose by a swab and being sent on your way. Where was that beer again? Hey, you’re in Abidjan. Drinks are never more than a few steps away. But then the guard re-emerges. “Have you forgotten me?” he inquires, beaming innocently.

Course I haven’t.

Covid-19 and me and you

October 24, 2020

Well, yes, I promised I was going to shut up about it after my Corona Chronicles from Bamako but I do find myself currently (and hopefully temporarily) in a very strange part of the world. I am watching with bemusement supposedly competent governments thrashing about in the wake of what must be termed a very large but ultimately not very powerful pandemic (the official statistics report death rates of less than 1 per cent of those affected). Coming from West Africa, Europe has all the hallmarks of a continent that has gone quite mad.

Just one example. As I mentioned in my Chronicles, when Mali and its neighbours decided they had a problem, they acted swiftly, decisively and ruthlessly. Night curfews did not start at 10pm in bars with large numbers of people already present, they started earlier, even when it is well-known that when people decide to partake in the rich nightlife of West African cities they do so very late. As someone astutely observed: will the virus know that it can only come into a packed and crowded bar when last orders have been consumed? This literally makes zero sense. You are either open – or you are closed. There is no halfway house here. 

The debate about face masks is even more bizarre. Look, I loathe the bloody things and I think they are not only a nightmarish inconvenience to wear but also an environmental disaster waiting to happen given the widespread human habit of disposing of your stuff anywhere you please but for crying out loud… Message to the navel-gazing Westerners complaining about this: the wearing of a face mask is, for once in your life, not about you. It is about others. It is not about a dictatorial government turning you into a slave. If you think this is what dictatorship and slavery look like you clearly have led an extraordinarily sheltered and massively privileged life. 

I will leave the conspiracy theorists who believe it’s all a China/WHO/Bill Gates/George Soros/5G/Deep State/Democrat/liberal/leftist/UN/Agenda 21/NWO bid for world domination, to one side. While fascinating in the way slow motion car crashes are fascinating, they add nothing to any rational debate about what we are dealing with and what we should do about it. Arguing with people advancing such points is futile. You will waste your time and fail to sway any of the True Believers. Just ask for evidence for their claims. You will invariably find that they are unable to provide such. All this BS should have one destination only: the bin. 

An even more dangerous cult, which should also find its way to the rubbish dump post haste is neoliberalism, the real point of writing this. Covid-19 has done more to destroy the neo-liberal consensus that began with the Greed Is Good regimes of Ronald Reagan and the equally loathsome Margaret Thatcher than any amount of street demonstrations, bedecked in yellow jackets or not. However, the neoliberal consensus still holds sway throughout much of the world and what is happening before your eyes is not a conspiracy but evidence-based fact: protection for the rich and their companies and banks, hell to pay for everybody else. It is Brexit on steroids.

When health workers get empty and meaningless gestures of nightly applause but no remuneration commensurate to their role in this crisis; when bankers are deemed more important than sewage workers; when shareholders and stockbrokers are considered of far more consequence than the mostly invisible people who ensure that your lights stay on, your water is clean, your internet keeps working and your roads are safe; when teachers are considered less important than some bozo gambling your future and mine away shifting billions around the world with the click of a mouse; when airlines are being kept aloft with billions of euros of taxpayers money that then goes to lease firms and moneymen…when you see all this happening in real time, you realise that you live in a system that is not worth saving. 

The banks’ Ponzi schemes that have been the bane of modern post-industrialist society will collapse once again. The Washington Consensus that brought destitution and war across Africa, Central and South America, Asia, South East Europe and the Middle East, has turned out to be fundamentally misguided, as the consequences are finally reaching the richest shores in the world. The criminals who dreamed it up should be persecuted, as the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako showed in his film, Bamako

The end of the system, which we now know to be built on fraud, idle speculation and lies, will not come about through the swing to the populist right we are seeing in many parts of the world today. Xenophobia, racism and violence are not the answers to the systemic failure Covid-19 is revealing. The populist right of Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Trump and the rest of the one trick con artists only serves to entrench neoliberalism even more. Like its kissing cousin, identity politics, it is a dangerous and ultimately pointless distraction. What will end the current systemic insanity is a radical swing towards real progressive politics, which has always been international in nature and always has the ideal of creating fair, equal and just societies in its DNA. You may want to call it socialism, which is fine by me. You can either have that, or you will have barbarism. 

Our choice.