If you are reading this, then you crossed over to 2021. Maybe you survived 2020 with an organization that lost funding or partnership, or a company that went out of business, or you lost a job, a friend or a loved one. Almost everyone lost something in 2020 – big or small – some lost travel time or a light moment with friends over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, or wedding plans, or a project that was almost into motion.
Every loss had its consequences, it led to – fear, anxiety, failure, hopelessness, and all feelings that many thought they could not deal with or survive. Honestly – 2020 was that year that will forever be described as unprecedented, ugly, bad, tough, challenging, puzzling etc.
This reminded me of an interesting book we used to read during our literature classes in high school – “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. In its 3rd Chapter, that year’s devastating harvest left a profound mark on Okonkwo, and for the rest of his life he considered his survival during that difficult period proof of his fortitude, Okonkwo would tell people that “Since I survived that year, I shall survive anything.” In the same spirit, if we got through 2020, I think we can survive anything.
2020 in a nutshell
2020 started just like any other year. All of us writing ambitious resolutions, companies making action plans, academic calendars released, deadlines set, budgets developed, and travel plans made – I guess only God knew what was ahead of us. We moved from a global virus outbreak, to lockdowns, to natural disasters, to economic adversities, to a racial reckoning (black lives matter) to high unemployment rates, to mass riots and to an increased acknowledgement of the importance of mental health and so much more. Every day seemed to debut some new, previously unimaginable disaster.
It was a year like no other and when some people were asked to sum it up in one word or phrase – the words they used say so much about how 2020 was filled with terrible, crazy and some beautiful moments – exhausting, dumpster fire, nightmare, lost, surreal, chaotic, limbo, heartbreaking, broken dreams, Ugh, crescendo, perseverance, transformative, reckoning, daily search for little wins etc.
2020, the hinge to thrive in 2021and beyond……
How do I talk about thriving in 2021 or beyond, without acknowledging or being grateful for making it through 2020? We made it through courtesy of so much – the relentless efforts to provide information – the tiktok challenge dances and inspiration videos, the continuous varied digital engagements – the free online certified courses – the religious sermons making rounds on social media – the Netflix movies etc. Some discovered newfound strengths, others started new projects, others leveraged technology to maintain some form of connection – to hold virtual dinners, weddings, and birthdays, while others learned new traits, skills, and passions. Whether we get back to a semblancy of normalcy or not, whether we remember our old selves or not, we are here, and that gives us reason enough to learn from 2020 if we are to thrive in 2021 and beyond.
What Africa must learn – health care
The COVID-19 pandemic tested governance and health systems globally, but Africa in its specialty. There is an African idiom that if a man does not eat at home, he may never give his wife enough money to cook a good pot of soup. This is said to be true about many African leaders and politicians who adamantly refuse to fix the medical facilities and in their home countries because they have the financial muscle – sponsored by taxpayers – to seek medical help abroad. Well, the pandemic grounded them too and they were brought face to face with the depressing conditions of the public health systems they oversee, without the luxury of seeking refuge in medical tourism.
Medical tourism by African leaders and politicians is said to be one of the salient but overlooked causes of Africa’s poor health systems and infrastructure. It is estimated that in some countries, the funds spent to treat top government officials abroad every year could build 10 hospitals. I believe and hope the pandemic jogged a little motivation for African leaders to change the status quo. The incentive should also trigger the private sector to heavily invest in health – health is wealth. The lesson is to take up the responsibility to develop proper health care for the citizens and consistently maintain it through political commitment and visionary leadership.
What Africa must learn – education
Most of us parents often make long term plans of taking our children abroad, at least for university, in the name of securing their future success. Its coined in what people say that a good education holds a good promise of better paying jobs and eventually a better future. Well, I am not against it. I am sure I would also spend a fortune or be willing to send my children a thousand miles away from home to give them a better education – who wouldn’t, if they have access to the resources? But why be subjected to such torture and pressure? It all boils down to the broken promises from our African leaders who repeatedly fail to better the education system and infrastructure, just because they have an option they can easily afford.
Again, COVID-19 was a fiasco for this. Many were stranded abroad, others got stuck at home because they couldn’t join universities abroad, yet they also couldn’t enroll in the local universities, because they have been promised to study abroad. For more clarity, I am not against studying abroad, I just want to highlight the sorry state of most of the schools and universities on our continent. Some students are studying chemistry and biology but have never been in a laboratory and have never seen a Bunsen burner , some students are still studying under trees, some students have to trek long distances to get to the nearest school, I don’t want to touch on the quality aspect, while many African leaders close their eyes to these problems – after all they can send their children to schools abroad.
The schools that we run to, have been relentlessly developed and we just contribute to develop them further, rather than slowly building our own. The painful part is that most of the students even decide to stay abroad after their study, rather than at least bringing back the knowledge and skills. With the right attitude and will, continent leaders can set up schools and universities that will produce people who can thrive in the diverse and changing labor market. The lesson is to start now.
What Africa must learn – ICT disparities
The lockdown accelerated digital transformation but it also heighted ICT disparities. Some organizations were thrown into a pause, some schools had to close because they had no facilities, many pupils and students could not even access a smart phone to join online studies, some were grappling with poor internet connections, some couldn’t afford the expensive internet charges, and some struggled with internet shutdowns.
Well, 2020 events reiterated the importance and economic benefits of internet access. Some of the common phrases were “we lost you for a minute” or “your connection is poor” especially during zoom, and conference meetings. So, ICT presents a plethora of possible delivery systems that can increase not only access to education across the continent but also the quality of platforms for learning, expanding access to libraries' resources and increasing regional and international knowledge sharing and so much more. It starts with the commitment to invest in digital infrastructure, which will eventually lead to affordable internet with good connection and raising awareness about the importance of ICT.
What Africa must learn – mental health
Have mental health issues increased of late? A person asked me in the mid of 2020. Not really, I replied – it has just become a hot topic because of the pandemic. Almost everyone had something to say about mental health, yet we continued to stigmatize people who tested positive of COVID-19 or those who were quarantined.
Faced with new realities of working from home, fear of contracting the virus, temporary unemployment, loss of loved ones, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, everyone was encouraged to specifically look after their mental health.
So much has been written and said about mental health. But the bottom line is, we need to deconstruct the misconceptions around mental health, and provide platforms for open and unashamed conversations about mental disorders. This calls for deliberate efforts by government, organizations, and individuals to invest in mental health.
Still tough ahead of us
Truth is, 2021 has also started pretty rough. Although, we expect vaccines to cool down the tension and economies to recover, we aren’t out of the woods yet. So, the future will chart its own course, and it will bring its own twists and turns as well as hardships and celebrations. Like some friends said, this is the perfect time we must learn to totally surrender to God and accept to conform to his will. Well, the most important thing is not to forget that we will survive and thrive, but also there are lessons that we mustn’t leave in 2020.
The author is a Civil Society Activist and a Public Health Practitioner. He can be reached via @JosephRyarasa