One of the planet’s – and Africa’s – deepest prejudices is being demolished by the way countries handle COVID-19.
For as long as any of us remember, everyone “knew” that “First World” countries – in effect, Western Europe and North America – were much better at providing their citizens with a good life than the poor and incapable states of the “Third World”. “First World” has become shorthand for competence, sophistication and the highest political and economic standards.
So deep-rooted is this that even critics of the “First World” usually accept it. They might argue that it became that way by exploiting the rest of the world or that it is not morally or culturally superior. But they never question that it knows how to offer (some) people a better material life. Africans and others in the “Third World” often aspire to become like the “First World” – and to live in it, because that means living better.
So we should have expected the state-of-the-art health systems of the “First World”, spurred on by their aware and empowered citizens, to handle COVID-19 with relative ease, leaving the rest of the planet to endure the horror of buckling health systems and mass graves. We have seen precisely the opposite.
“First World” is often code for countries run by Europeans or people of European descent; some of the worst health performers on the globe in recent weeks have been “First World”. For Anglophone Africans, it is doubly interesting that two of the greatest failures in handling COVID-19 are the former coloniser, Britain, and the English-speaking superpower, the United States of America.
Both countries’ national governments have made just about every possible mistake in tackling COVID-19.
They ignored the threat. When they were forced to act, they sent mixed signals to citizens which encouraged many to act in ways which spread the infection. Neither did anything like the testing needed to control the virus. Both failed to equip their hospitals and health workers with the equipment they needed, triggering many avoidable deaths.
The failure was political. The US is the only rich country with no national health system. An attempt by former president Barack Obama to extend affordable care was watered down by right-wing resistance, then further gutted by the current president and his party. Britain’s much-loved National Health Service has been weakened by spending cuts. Both governments failed to fight the virus in time because they had other priorities.
And yet, in Britain, the government’s popularity ratings are sky high and it is expected to win the next election comfortably. The US president is behind in the polls but the contest is close enough to make his re-election a real possibility. Can there be anything more typically “Third World” than citizens supporting a government whose actions cost thousands of lives?
The “First World” is still far richer than the rest of the planet and may well remain so. So its politicians, academics and journalists will probably still believe they are better than the rest.
But the COVID-19 experience may just trigger new thinking in the “Third World”. The most basic function of a government is to protect the safety of its citizens. Ensuring that people remain healthy is at least as important a guarantee of safety as protecting them from violence.
Reasonable people would surely much rather be living in Kerala or Senegal (or East Asia) right now than in Europe and North America, raising obvious questions about who really does offer a better life.
That should inspire Africans and others in the “Third World” to ask themselves whether it makes sense to want to be America, Britain or France. COVID-19 has made a strong argument for wanting to be East Asia – or, given Africa’s circumstances, Kerala.