COVID-19 continues to devastate the world. The question of how to contain the pandemic has remained a headache with implementation of measures radically changing lives. Africa has a large population of youth and it is prudent that their plight and role in responding to the pandemic is interrogated. I had an opportunity to speak to the first Africa youth envoy, Miss Aya Chebbi, a conversation that revolved around the role of her office and the place of youth in the fight to combat COVID-19.
Emmanuel Yegon: Who is Aya Chebbi?
Aya Chebbi: I am a pan-African feminist, originally from Tunisia. I serve the African Union as the youth envoy. I was appointed by the Chairperson from more than 700 applicants (from) across the continent.
EY: Tell us a little bit about your office and your mandate.
AC: As a political appointee, my role is advocacy— to member state governments, ministers and heads of states on what young people need. We meet young people during missions and listen to them. We organize inter-generational dialogues and ask decision makers to have youth at the table and co-design solutions with them.
EY: How much of intergenerational dialogue is happening now during this pandemic? How effective are they?
AC: We did a lot of consultations with the youth and gave feedback to Africa CDC. Africa CDC has convened health ministers and adopted a joint continental strategy and Africa task force on Corona virus. That task force is at member state level. On the national level, there is more challenge because I think our governments should remember that there are many young professionals who could be on the front line of this fight as young scientists, young health workers and tech gurus because we need a lot of work on communication and bring all the creativity and innovation of young people to the front. We need to engage youth and push the agenda beyond volunteering in door to door doing sensitization and creating awareness, producing hand sanitizers, creating their websites and trying to simplify information and doing campaigns.
EY: Is your post remote? What is Africa CDC doing in terms of testing?
AC: I have been in Addis Ababa for two months now. I was in Tunis before.
There are different things that started from February, one of them is the health ministers’ emergency meeting which resulted in the joint strategy and the taskforce. There was training and capacity support for member states. They put together a network of clinicians. They are training member states from more than 40 countries in prevention, risk communication and in measurements that are needed especially for the detection of the virus. They distributed 1000 test kits to member states especially in the beginning of the outbreak. There was Jack Ma and Alibaba group donations that the prime minister of Ethiopia distributed evenly to all members states. So about 20,000 test kits to each member state and protective equipment and gears. Yesterday the African union also with Africa CDC launched the Africa COVID-19 fund.
EY: About two weeks ago, two doctors went viral for suggesting that the first vaccine should be tested in Africa and you did an online response to that. What is your take on this matter?
AC: When such a thing happens, it is important to go and watch the whole interview in context.. The doctors were talking about their BCG vaccine which is the TB vaccine but that doesn’t deny that their tone of the conversation and the whole content of the conversation doesn’t come from any scientific analysis but from a very colonial and racist logic. We should condemn positions and statements like this that show racism and inequality. It is unacceptable at all to take Africans as test subjects or as a laboratory ground.
EY: What’s your view on specific nationalities individuals, or religions or rather minority groups being blamed for spreading COVID-19?
AC: Stigmatization is dangerous. We need to stop and walk away from stigmatization and treat each other as human beings. This is the time that shows all of us are equal and can be affected regardless of our class or nationality. The only difference is that more people are affected than others because they are more vulnerable and need more attention.
EY: (Nessa*) When you say young people should be at the frontline championing interventions to end COVID19, we see more AYT taking advantage of social media. How best can the government harness that positively? What is the place of the youth in flattening the curve in the continent?
AC: My office has so far convened 10 consultations with 150 youth from 40 countries of 20-25 youth per group. These are the kind of things that they say they want to do. We came up with 3 phases of youth intervention; 1). The preventive phase which involve communication and which young people are good at. We are at a better position to talk to our peers; mobilize the creative community and trusted messengers like religious leaders, chiefs and traditional leaders. Using social media to disseminate the right information. Young people can volunteer to do door to door awareness, distribute masks and conduct food drives.
The second phase is emphasize that the people in informal settlement, refugee camps, prisoners, disabled, the elderly, people affected by other illness such as HIV/AIDS and cancer are most vulnerable. The Young people can make sure that support from government and measures of prevention reach those communities.
The third phrase is the post COVID-19 response. We launched the African youth charter hustlers who will advocate for reformation of health care systems based on the African youth charter which guarantees the rights of young people to have adequate health care.
EY: (Nessa*) Is it possible that you share the three methodologies you came up with if it is a document?
AC: At Youth Envoy, you will find a section on COVID_19. It has all the reports on consultations. You can sign up to be engaged, to host or participate in consultation as well.
EY: Tell us more about the African youth charter, the hustler’s initiative.
AC: The African Youth Charter Hustler Initiative was developed and written by young people from the previous generation and adopted in 2006. It opened application a few days ago and is open till 20th April. You can apply if you come from any of the 55 member states. It will be a two-year program, where young people will be trained in advocacy in their regions and will be advocating to either ratify if the charter is not ratified in the country or implement the charter. The charter has a lot of measures of how to advocate for the youth agenda, monitor and report because we have a challenge of monitoring and evaluating the charter implementation. These hustlers will help us for accountability. It is a youth led accountability initiative where young people not only work and advocate to governments but also hold the governments who rectified and signed up to implement this charter accountable.
EY: Maybe you can tell us about the AU Youth corps too?
AC: The African Union Youth volunteer corps is a program of the AU that deploys about 100 young people to the AU here in Addis Ababa and to different AU organs or offices around the continent. Young people are usually first trained then they are deployed for one year. I encourage youth to apply once the application is open and it is physical.
EY: (Footprints4Change*) In regard to recent Corona related violence and crime in most economically disadvantaged communities, what can we do as young people for peace during this time? What is your comment on government using police to brutalize?
AC: I hope to see more young peace builders engaging in initiatives and being more vocal because we just don’t need a health response; we need a multisectoral response in terms of government measures. Governments need to understand that violence only breeds violence. Populations have more than 50% of young people. If governments can get those 50% on their side and their trust, then they can take care of the rest of the population. Governments should be more strategic, smarter and resort more to collaboration and partnership and co-leadership rather than violence.
EY: What is your message to the African youth in light of the pandemic we have now?
AC: We need to step up to the challenge. I call on all youth to be part of the solution and leave a footprint to which we can the pride of having saved the humanity and the planet from the pandemic. Please join hands together as a collective African Youth response to COVID-19.
EY: (Sissephora*) What can the youth from diaspora do to help especially those in the UK?
AC:(1) Diaspora contribution to Africa whether it’s in the pandemic or in Africa’s development in general is really to fundraise; to contribute the remittances from diaspora. Africa is 70% offline and we do a lot of social media campaigning and information sharing but only 30% of our population get that information. In diaspora it is 80%, so please help debunk the narrative in the media that Africa is incapable of handling the crisis.
EY: (Athini*) Are your other youth networks doing any groundwork separate from your office?
AC: We did the virtual consultations with Africa women leaders’ network, Young African women caucus, one young world, Africa youth movement, East African community youth ambassadors just to mention but a few. These are not NGOs or organizations and it’s necessary that I do a lot of this work with networks and movements because they are not organized as NGOs and the AU usually works with NGOs and organizations. We need that diversity.
EY: What keeps you moving?
AC: I am a hardcore pan Africanist. I truly believe that if we unite as a continent, we can overcome anything. The solution to all our problems and challenges is Pan Africanism because under the moment we can unite beyond our borders and face any challenge. Youth are the youngest population in the world and in the history of Africa. So, when I say unite in Pan Africa ideology it means unite youth. If I unite 60% of the population then it means we can start a political party tomorrow and all of us vote for it and run the country. We are a rich continent. The only reason why we have not been able to harness all our resources for our benefit and our people is because we are not united as Africans and as a continent. The more we think smaller of our identity and belonging the more divided we become but the more we think broader of our identity as Pan Africa first and foremost, then we all win. This is my belief and that keeps me going and until that dreams becomes true, I will not stop.
EY: Who inspires you?
AC: In Tunisia, we have Elissa who rebelled from her tyrant brother and built the Carthage which has become the crossroad of Mediterranean. She inspires me through her female leadership. She is radical and rebellious which is what I believe I am. She is open to collaborations and I think we need more of that in this world. She speaks to my vision of unity and collaboration.
EY: How do you handle your mental wellbeing?
AC: I found out about meditation, which I use to keep sane, back in 2011. I call my parents who are in Tunisia daily, check on friends and family and give them the moral support they need and the help they need. We all need to be there for each other so that we can overcome it. Let people know they are not alone in this.
EY: What is the Africa Union’s agenda 2020 about silencing the guns? Tell us about it. And with the pandemic at hand, what plans do you have for the activities that were set to take place in 2020? Will you halt them or move them online?
AC: We are moving most activities of my office online. We are continuing with many of the activities that we planned online. We started our advocacy during the heads of states summit and we are trying to take out the silencing the guns from the heads of states agenda of just conflict-free Africa to silencing gender based violence, silencing corruption, youth unemployment, climate crisis, silencing poverty and hunger. So we put five themes that we are rallying around young people to connect and relate to the topic because many countries in Africa who do not have conflicts do not relate to the agenda or to the theme but in many ways the theme speaks to them. On 25th of March there was an attack on the Sahel and so we need to keep on pushing for cease fire and using the opportunity of the pandemic to have dialogues and ask different people involved in conflict to really sit on the table of dialogue.
EY: Thank you very much Miss Aya and we hope that you are keeping safe. One final word for the youths especially during this period?
AC: Stay safe. Stay sane. Continue playing your part and be part of the solution; stay in solidarity with your peers and your community; know that you are not alone. Let us use the resources we have at hand to come together in a collective response as young people and let’s do that for our generation and for the next generation. Thank you.
You can watch our conversation on YouTube
*—Nessa, Footprints4Change, Sissephona and Athini were participants who asked questions during the conversation.