COVID-19 and the Social Contract: A Lesson from Sub-Saharan Africa

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It is not surprising that the national centres for disease control in countries like Nigeria have, so far, competently handled the spread of the corona virus pandemic in their countries. It would be surprising if they had not, given the depth of their experience with containing the spread of diseases such as Lassa Fever and Ebola. As a result of its experience with dengue fever, for example, the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal and leading virologist, Amadou Sall, are developing the first $1, 10-minute, coronavirus test.

What has been intriguing to witness, and is in need of further explanation, however, is why many citizens in African countries have obeyed sometimes very tough lockdown measures that at least on the surface seem to make much less sense in the African context than they do in a European one. In South Africa, for instance, the lockdown has been one of the most stringent in the world and has included a ban on cigarette and alcohol sales.

The puzzle of African obedience

Demographically, Sub-Saharan Africa does not suffer the problem of an aging population. Quite the contrary, only 6.09% are over 65 years old. As such, a number of commentators have wondered whether it has made sense to plunge a region of largely young people and children into economic disaster and suffering in benefit of a very small elderly population. Even when we factor in the fact that COVID-19 not only targets the frail and elderly, and that in countries like the United States, a number of seemingly healthy young adults and children have died, it has been unclear whether the economic harm caused by lockdown and social distancing measures will not be more harmful in a particular African economic and social context than the risks of the virus itself.

The informal economy, which requires many people to work constantly for their daily wages but in less regimented fashion than those with formal jobs, and in very close proximity to others, accounts for up to 80% of employment in Ghana, for example. These are people that cannot work on ‘Zoom’. Whether in demographic terms, or in basic and crucial livelihood terms, the question remains what has led many people to obey government measures that do not seem to be at all in the individual interest of most.

To be sure, a number of countries including Togo, Lesotho, Botswana, Mali, and Namibia, have instituted comprehensive stimulus packages to help affected sectors including informal sector workers, but when we consider that in many countries throughout the region trust in government integrity and capacity remains very low, then the question of why lock down measures have been largely accepted becomes even more puzzling.

Binding ‘the people’

One answer may lie in how we understand the notion of the social contract. One of the many negative ramifications of the historical processes that brought most modern African states and their governments into existence is that the bond of rights and duties between national governments and their citizens and even between the nation state itself and those who live in it continues to be tenuous and weak, at best. Yet, the bonds between citizens, which significantly predate modern statehood, remain strongly consequential.

In other words, the vertical, Lockean, or, more extremely, Hobbesian interpretation of the social contract holds little water in many African countries. What deep crises such as the current pandemic may highlight, however, is that something else does exist in these countries that is not only able to counteract the effect of low levels of both public confidence in government and of governments own low administrative capacities, and that is the more significant existence of a relationship in which rights and obligations exist horizontally, bonding the ordinary population not to their governments, but to one another.

Such dynamics ought to be equally important even in non-African contexts where a particular history of state formation has both influenced and been influenced by thinking that sees the main contracting relationship as being between a government or state and its people. Crises of such proportions as the coronavirus pandemic do not require us to do simply as our governments instruct, nor simply to hold to account governments who seek an excuse to overstep moral bounds. They further require us to act, often independently, and where no formal request may have been made, against some of our own rights in the benefit of our neighbours and many others who we have never met.

It probably already was, but in whatever becomes the “new normal”, it will, perhaps, be increasingly outmoded to think of the social contract in purely, or even in largely, vertical terms— certainly in many of the post-colonial societies of the Global South but equally in those where such thinking would appear to make more historical sense.

This is not a suggestion that governments and the legitimation of our collective relationship to them will become redundant. Far from it. It is the suggestion, however, that in calculating the respective health of our societies, we ought to shift some focus away from simply what governments are doing and what they are capable of doing to the collective capacities of citizens, particularly on the basis of a mutual respect and obligation they have shown themselves as having towards one another.

This has implications for the judgments we make of societies on the basis of the structure of their political or economic systems alone. It may not suffice, as it seems to have done for a number of decades, to determine the health of a country based purely on socio-economic measures such as whether the country is economically ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ or whether it is procedurally governed by electoral democracy or autocracy. We ought, also, to ask, how deeply do the citizens of a place truly care about one another?


Dr. Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI. She is currently working on a book manuscript concerning the law’s legitimacy, it focuses on the connection between participation, citizens’ perception of the law’s moral legitimacy, and obedience.