From models to narratives and back: a call for on-the-ground analyses of COVID-19 spread and response in Africa


This week, BMJ Global Health published two mathematical models (here and here) to predict the pattern of spread and the potential consequences of COVID-19 in Africa. These two papers are steps ahead of several other such predictive exercises in that they make deliberate effort to take into account the different ways in which people live their lives in different parts of the continent. The papers spelt out in some detail the various demographic, socio-economic and geographical factors that are (actually or potentially) responsible for how COVID-19 might spread on the continent.

To quote the old Danish proverb, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” After all, mathematical models are limited in their ability to predict reality. This is especially the case when the reality which is the subject of such prediction in one which, like COVID-19, is only, at best, partially understood, and continues to evolve. But that is no reason to give up on efforts at predictive modelling. However, it places a responsibility on people who construct and consume such models to have a mechanism by which to update their predictions.

BMJ Global Health, in conjunction with the Emerging Voices for Global Health programme would like to invite narratives and analyses of on the ground experiences in Africa. We want these narratives and analyses to take these modelling exercises as their point of departure. How, for example has rurality played a role in the (non-)spread of COVID-19 in your setting? What about the age distribution, or even population density? What about the level of inequality? What is the role of your local political situation in the response measures put in place to control COVID-19? How have measures put in place by (both national and sub-national) governments (not) worked?

At an earlier stage of the pandemic, BMJ Global Health blogs editor Soumyadeep Bhaumik issued a call for less opinions and more reflections based on experience; more narratives. And we have since received and continue to publish many insightful reflections on COVID-19 from around the world, a good number of them from Africa; first rough drafts of history. This invitation is a continuation of that call. However, there are three key differences with the current call:

  1. The blog posts will take these two models as their point of departure
  2. To make sure they are rich in contextual detail, the blog posts will be written as though only (or primarily) for a local audience – do not leave out details you are concerned a foreigner may not understand; i.e. write for a local gaze, and from a local pose
  3. If required, potential authors will be supported (if required) to get their article to a point where it sufficiently contributes to local understanding of the pandemic

Please submit your 200-word proposal to and indicate if you would require a coach. If you require a coach, we will find a match and link you up with them. We will aim to get the process through rapidly, so that the time between your pitch and having developed a publishable final draft should be within 10 days; a draft that can contribute to truly understanding why and how the factors explored in these two (and potentially other) modelling papers are playing out in your setting, and whether there are other factors at play, and how those other factors are playing out.

These blog posts will inform a richer understanding and prediction of the spread and response to COVID-19 in Africa, with the kind of nuances and narratives that are not possible to achieve in mathematical modelling, or even in research papers written for the foreign gaze. Future modelling exercises, or updated versions of these two will, hopefully, use insights from such narratives.

About the Author:

Seye Abimbola, the editor in chief of BMJ Global Health, is a senior lecturer in global health at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 Competing Interests:

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare no competing interests.

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