Double assault: How COVID-19 affected Africans in the US and Africa

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Chukwuemeka Ijezie
Chukwuemeka Ijezie

By Anthony Akaeze, reporting from Houston, USA

TWO visits within a space of five days to one of the African restaurants located on Bissonnet Street, Houston, after the lifting of the lockdown order that grounded many businesses in the city like in other parts of the state and country, gave an idea of the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the eatery. Though the management of the restaurant partially opened for business during the lockdown period in March and April that saw it serving take away orders as a sticker inside the eatery show, ‘life’ was yet to return to the restaurant in the manner the reporter knew it to be, pre COVID-19.

Even with adjustment in the seating arrangement in the restaurant in observance of the social distancing guideline reeled out by the US federal, state and county authorities, only two customers, aside the reporter, were seated at the eatery on May 7. Others came and walked out with their orders. On May 11, only three tables, outside the reporter’s, were occupied by people.

African restaurant on Bissonnet Street, Houston
African restaurant on Bissonnet Street, Houston

While things were yet to normalize at the restaurant, some other businesses or companies, including  where Weni Diffa, a Nigerian woman,  works, have fully resumed operation, hoping, like many other establishments impacted by the lockdown/stay at home order necessitated by the pandemic in the state and elsewhere, to make up for the lost time of no work. But whether currently  partially or fully engaged, the memory of the challenges Africans in the US faced over the coronavirus pandemic, and the lessons learnt from it, will, for many of them, remain a humbling, if not teachable moment for the rest of their lives. For such people, the pandemic came like a thief in the night-without notice-and left, in its wake, huge losses.

Yvonne Mbuuh, a Cameroonian native, who lives in Minnesota, where she works in the human services sector, said the cost of the pandemic on her life and that of people she knows is huge: “I am certainly aware of a lot of Africans across US that have been seriously affected and are struggling due to this pandemic. The struggle has not just been the loss of jobs, businesses and financial hardship for a lot of Africans, but some have lost loved ones to COVID-19 here in the US. It’s scary. My mom is a patient and has been for more than a year. All her post OP appointments have been canceled and pushed further ahead. She is confused and uncertain when she can be normal again and go back home to her family. I’m more concerned because I am responsible for her and don’t know what to do. I’m sure there are others out there in the same situation or even worse.”

Diffa, a Houston resident, also narrated her experience during the lockdown. “The period was a big concern. It affected me, not just me alone but my family and place of work. Also, mentally, that anxiety of not being with people. Financially, we had to stop working. I’m a hair stylist, apart from the manufacturing company I work for. I could hardly meet any of my clients because of the social distancing (order). I’ve not been to work for like seven weeks now because of the pandemic and I was not paid and I have bills to pay. It was and still is challenging: the fear of meeting people, going out to do shopping, you have to put on mask, wear glove, you are not sure where the virus is. You are sceptical of touching things or meeting people or clients despite the fact that you have to make money and pay your bills. So, it’s quite challenging,” she said, adding “Though the lockdown has been lifted for us to go about our normal activity, we still have that fear that we might contract it if we are not careful. Even as we are back to work, we are not sure that things will be normal the way it used to be.”

Chukwuemeka Ijezie, Nigerian auto dealer, in Houston, also told the reporter that he was impacted by COVID-19: “During the lockdown, people were at home, and if people were at home, there’s no way they can rent your car, neither can you sell cars because people don’t have need to go out. So, it affected a lot of businesses including mine.”

It wasn’t solely about money as even those whose jobs or businesses were not stalled by COVID-19, told of the disruption to their daily lives. Some of them also participated in the daily battle to save lives of people who contracted the virus either as doctors, nurses, caregivers or healthcare providers, thus putting their own lives at risk. Yasin Kakande, a US based Ugandan writer and immigration expert who recently published a book titled ‘Why we are Coming,’ a work that sheds light on the reasons Africans migrate abroad, said that “the main impact of COVID-19 to African immigrants has been exposure to the virus through the essential work they do,” and that the African immigrants who lost their jobs like in the hospitality industry owing to the pandemic, shifted to the “caregiving or supermarkets (sectors) that remained open,” thereby exposing themselves to risk.

If the lockdown order was hard on Mbuuh, Diffa and Ijezie, it naturally would rub off on their dependants back home in Africa, of which the trio, admit to having. This is because, as Ijezie put it, “Everything is a chain. Once it affects one part, the dependents down the line, get affected too. That is just the way it is. I have dependents and kids back home and I have family here too. Once the head is affected, every part of the body is affected.”

Most Africans in the US interviewed for this story admit to having assisted or being a source of financial succour to some family member or friends back home in Africa. Their financial remittances are, for some families, a support system, and for others,  a lifeline, particularly in many African countries with little or poor welfare systems in place for their citizens.

Prof Mike Obadan
Prof Mike Obadan

Mike Obadan, a professor of Economics and non-executive director,  Central Bank of Nigeria, in an email interview with this reporter, states that “poverty in many African countries is very high and the quality of life is very low for many.” As such, remittances by the African Diaspora–many of who were born or lived in Africa before relocating abroad–has been crucial over the years.

According to a May 2019 report by Professor Gibril Faal on behalf of the African Union Commission and the German Agency for International Development titled, Strategic, Business and Operational Framework for an African Diaspora Finance Corporation, a number of factors led to migration from Africa. Under the title, Economic Crises and African Migration, it states that “the economies of post-colonial Africa faced their first major transnational challenge with the oil crisis of 1973-74, triggered by the OPEC oil price hikes…a number of other pull and push factors increased emigration from Africa. By the time of the 1979-80 oil crisis caused by lower output and higher prices arising from the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, many African countries faced worsened economic conditions. To a great extent, the situation was exacerbated by the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)…the negative impacts included higher levels of unemployment and increased migration and brain-drain…Financial remittances became a major form of engagement with family, community and country in Africa.”

But having been caught unawares by the lockdown/stay at home order, not a few members of the Diaspora, both legal and undocumented immigrants interviewed by this reporter, said they were unable to assist their families the way they used to. Though Segun Abiola, a Nigerian who assists people in Houston to send money to Nigeria through his company told me that many of his clients were still able to remit money back home during the lockdown, he attributed it to the fact that they worked in the essential services sector during the period  that made it possible for them to earn money and also because they received their $1200 Stimulus package which President Donald Trump’s administration approved for Americans and people with work permit. But there were many others, including undocumented immigrants, who for one reason or another and sudden nature of the stay at home orders and close of work places, were unable to meet their financial commitment to Africa during the period. One of them is a Nigerian who narrated his embarrassment of having to ask for financial help just before the Easter festival from a friend to send to his mother in his village. He was lucky to get the help and said he was compelled to do so as a last resort because “I could not have been able to sleep well with the thought that the old woman had no money to buy whatever food she wanted for the Easter period.”

While the Nigerian was able to secure the loan, some others said it wasn’t easy getting help as many people were in the same tight situation. Said Mbuuh: “I, on my part and others that I know, have been unable to support our people back home like we used to, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the loss of businesses and jobs. If we cannot provide adequately for self due to lack of resources, it’s difficult to stretch a helping hand to another person. Bringing it closer to home, I have two brothers back home who have been seriously sick and a grandmother whose financial assistance solely depends on me. I have been unable to help them adequately like I used to provide for their medication and food. Coupled with other difficulties in Africa, it’s very hard on the people and the economy at large. When people lose their jobs and businesses due to a lockdown caused by a confusing pandemic, it becomes hard on families and entire economies.”

Professor Obadan shares a similar view. Noting that the coronavirus pandemic “resulted in a twin crises: a health crisis and an economic crisis,” that adversely affected incomes of people, he pointed out that such a scenario “will definitely reduce the inflows of diaspora funds into African countries that have substantial representation abroad.” According to Obadan, “for sometime now, diaspora remittances to African countries has been a notable source of capital inflows aimed at improving living conditions and reduction of poverty of families through enhanced consumption, and boosting investment and growth through establishment and financing of businesses as well as funding of capital formation and development projects, in both rural and urban communities.

A April 2019 Pew Research, reveals that “money sent by immigrants to their home countries in sub-Saharan Africa reached a record $41 billion in 2017… a 10% jump in remittances from the previous year, the largest annual growth for any world region.”

With the coronavirus challenge not over, even with the lifting of lockdowns in many countries, Africans abroad, no matter the financial state they find themselves, know they remain a key source of help, particularly when they are aware of the challenges back home. With many African economies reeling from the effect of the pandemic, the palliatives by many African governments, amid lockdowns, have been few and far between, and even some of the relief packages provided across the countries are being hijacked by politicians hoping to reap from the misery. In Nigeria, there has been huge outcry in parts of the country that food items or money provided for vulnerable people by federal or state governments did not go round or were disproportionately shared to favour certain people or party members.

In Kenya, Justus Wanjala, a journalist, said that though, the government of Kenya took a “raft of measures to cushion households from the impact” of the pandemic, “there are loud murmurs from the public that that they are superficial.” The government, he said,  reduced value added tax (VAT) from 16% to 14% on goods and services, reduced taxes on salaries of  workers in the  formal sector which  employs  20% of the workforce from 30% to 25% while eliminating taxation completely for people in the same segment earning  less than USD 230, and also commenced  a cash transfer programme  whereby it provides US20 per month to  individuals categorized as vulnerable: the aged, disabled and the poor in urban and rural areas. In regard to the latter, Wanjala argues that “the gesture, although appearing magnanimous in an economy where social welfare is a new phenomenon,  is minuscule and cannot fully meet needs of households for a full month.” He added that Kenya’s informal sector, “employs some  12  million  or around 80% of the working population,” and thus “is already reeling from  curfew and stay at home orders/lockdowns (in two major cities: Mombasa and Nairobi), such that the reduction in VAT  means nothing to people whose purchasing power have been eroded.”

In Zimbabwe, the lockdown imposed to check the virus is also a source of concern for many people. Fatima Bulla, a Zimbabwean journalist, said “Zimbabwe has largely an informal sector and being locked down at home meant no means to feed most of these people.” To cushion the effects of the pandemic, Bulla said the Zimbabwean government, while declaring a lockdown extention recently, “announced an 18 billion dollar stimulus package which is meant to provide support to different sectors of the economy so that they do not fold.” The 18 billion, she said, “amounts to 9 percent of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product or 28.6 percent of the 2020 National Budget.”

Since the days of Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe when sanctions by Western countries like US and UK led to a loss in value of the country’s currency leading to economic hardship for many Zimbabweans, reliance on its Diaspora population has been critical.

Juliet Sithole,  a Zimbabwean who has lived in the US for 20 years, said the situation in Zimbabwe is such that young professionals, including doctors, are leaving the country. “I know the financial struggle in the country and the strain that comes with it, and I do my best to assist where I can.”

She estimates that there are more than 150,000 Zimbabweans in the US with a majority of them in Houston and Dallas (Texas) because the weather is similar to that of Zimbabwe, as well as places like New York, Washington DC and Massachusetts.

In South Africa, there have been reports of people queuing in the streets to get food to assuage their hunger following a severe lockdown that began in late March.

Nigeria’s situation is possibly worse, given its huge population. Obadan points to a recent Nigeria Living Standards Survey report (May 2020) by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics which classifies  40.1 percent of Nigerians as poor, that is about 82 million out of about 200 million Nigerians.  The condition in Nigeria is worsened by the fact that the price of oil, it’s mainstay, has crashed, thus making nonsense of its national budget. Given what he knows of his country, Ijezie said that the situation in Nigeria is critical. “Back home, it’s not just about Corona virus, it’s also about hunger virus. That is the worst. There’s hunger back home.”

It’s not just Nigeria. Much of Africa, even before COVID-19, were struggling economically and the conditions could still get worse with the virus’s rippling effects yet to abate. While Africa remains the least affected region in terms of Coronavirus related deaths worldwide, it is the most challenging place to manage the effects of the virus given its generally poor infrastructure, poor economy and welfare systems. Figures from the World Health Organization on May 12, show that of the 4,088,848 global cases and 283,153 deaths, Africa accounts for 46,829 cases and 1449 deaths compared to America’s 1,743,717 cases and 104,549 deaths and Europe’s 1,755,790 cases and 157,880 deaths.

However the Covid crisis lingers, the African Diaspora-which sub-Saharan immigrant  population in the US as at 2018 is “slightly more than 2 million,” according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute authored by Carlos Echeverria-Estrada and Jeanne Batalova, is largely looked upon as an asset to call upon, and many of them, even with current challenges, are not shirking this responsibility. It’s a role they had long been playing, and look forward to continue to play. The opportunity to resume work/business, for many of them in the US and elsewhere, offers a chance  to continue from where they left off, and the lessons learnt, for some, will be useful going forward. “The expectation is that, just like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, the narrative is going to change. People are going to come out with a lot of vigor. Naturally, we feel we have lost a lot; we are coming up now with more strength to try to cover up all that we have lost. There’s a gap we need to fill. So there’s going to be a lot of seriousness in business and every other sphere,” said Ijezie.

Anthony Akaeze, an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author, sent this piece from Houston-Texas. He is currently working on a new book with the tentative title, Where Strangers Dwell, a story of hope, pain, accomplishments, migration and discovery. 

 

– May 16, 2020 @ 11:55 GMT /

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