I have spent a good deal of my working life reporting at first hand on disasters of different kinds. Floods and famines, earthquakes and cyclones, humanitarian crises triggered by conflict — mostly in Africa and South Asia. Some of them were sudden disasters. Others — like the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s that killed up to a million people — unfolded slowly and inexorably.
There were times when I could grasp the sheer scale of suffering in the biggest of these disasters: the thousands and thousands of people shivering and starving in the dawn chill on the plain outside the Ethiopian highlands town of Korem; seeing the mass graves in which they had buried the earthquake dead in Haiti and the scene of utter devastation on arriving in the capital, Port-au-Prince; the vast areas under water and the communities marooned in the 2010 Pakistan floods. But what particularly stays with me now is the effects of the disasters on individuals.
From people who managed to reach Korem alive to begin the search for food, I heard about the elderly people they had had to leave behind to a near certain death and about those people who became so weak they died on the way. And there was the day a distraught father held out his skeletal child in his arms and begged us to take him with us.
In Mozambique — during near famine conditions caused by protracted civil war — I went to a village cut off by rebels and, in the midst of its deprivation, I met a health worker who risked mines and other threats to walk to and from a distant town by night to restock medicines in his clinic.
When HIV surfaced in southwestern Uganda in the 1980s I met families who would isolate ailing relatives out of sight, such was the stigma attached then to the disease and their lack of hope that they could find any help.
In several earthquakes I have watched as rescuers have tried so desperately to lift and chip away at concrete and rubble and then shouted for total silence to see if anyone trapped below was still alive. The wait for relatives is unbelievably agonising, especially when hope is slowly extinguished.
A humbling place
Disasters fast reveal those people who are most vulnerable to their effects — and often why. In my experience, they always throw up astonishing examples of courage, selflessness and dedication — I have often seen people who are displaced from their homes find shelter with the poorest families. These days, much effort also goes into building resilience against disasters, and there is a growing recognition that it is most effective when it draws on and values local knowledge and understanding. The midst of a disaster is truly a humbling place.
Is there a comparison to be made between these disasters of many different kinds — and the response to them — and the current coronavirus pandemic, unfolding globally before all our eyes?
In one important respect, I think there is. “Common humanity” is a widely used phrase, so much so that it is at risk of losing its value as a goal to bind us together at a time like this. But it is an immensely powerful concept, a definition in many ways of the concept of ubuntu, so cherished and often talked about by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Ubuntu is translated in many ways — among them “I am because of who we all are”,“humanity towards others” or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. All these definitions sum up the concept well. I once heard it said that you really know what ubuntu means when it is absent.
To recognise ubuntu in much of the response there has already been to the Covid-19 pandemic — and to hope that it will underpin the response of individuals, communities and whole societies as the virus continues its spread — is invaluable. And because we are indebted to Africa for the concept it could help us keep in mind that many African countries and their health systems could be hit — and tested — very severely by the virus.
Mike Wooldridge is a journalist who was the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent from 1989 to 1990. His experience as a correspondent in Africa stretches from Cape Town to Kampala. He is now based in Oxford in the UK.