TAKING STOCK OF SOME AFRICAN VIEWS ON COVID-19 

Editor

Coronavirus COVID-19When coronavirus (COVID-19) first appeared, Africans expressed variable opinions about its origin, purpose, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Some of the opinions, speculations, theories, and beliefs were obviously false, misleading, truthful, or indeterminate. We are now 11 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, though the situation is constantly changing, it is time to assess where some of these views about the pandemic stand today.

In the early stages of the pandemic, when Europe and North America were being ravaged by the virus, most African countries south of the Sahara had no or single digit confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection. This led some Chinese conspiracy theorists to peddle the notion that Africans were strong and were naturally resistant to the virus. Some Africans and some African Americans began to spread such a theory. Others argued that Africans were less vulnerable to COVID-19 because they live in a hot climate. Furthermore, they argued that the general immunity of Africans against COVID-19 is stronger than that of Europeans. They also claimed that Africa has a mild strain of form of the virus.

As attractive as they might have sounded, such claims had no supporting evidence. As we now know, black people in America are the most victimized by the virus for reasons I discussed previously. Other countries with tropical climates are not immune to the infection. The October statistics show that India now has over 7 million cases second only to the USA with about 8 million. Other high case countries in the tropics include Brazil (5 million), Colombia (0.9 million) and Peru (0.8 million). Furthermore, some countries with cold climates have low confirmed cases of COVID-19: Iceland (3,000), Finland (12,000), Norway (15,000) and Denmark (32,000) thousand only.  While it is true that viruses, as a whole, will easily die when exposed to direct sunlight or high heat, the heat in houses, shades, vehicles, etc. is not enough to kill the virus, especially if the aerosol from coughing or sneezing of infected persons find their way to your nose or eyes within seconds regardless of where you are.

The virus in Africa all came from China via Asia, Middle East, Europe, and America. Therefore, they cannot be any different. Among the many COVID-19 isolates sequenced in Africa and elsewhere, none has been found avirulent. Those which are isolated from asymptomatic individuals appear to be as infective and of the same level of virulence in other individuals. Why different individuals are asymptomatic or have variable levels of symptom severity is not yet completely understood.

MagufuliAmong those who accepted that COVID-19 pandemic is real, there are some who saw it as nothing but a punishment from God for man’s bad behavior. To them the solution did not lie in science but faith in God. Besides pastors, there were a few high-profile persons including President Magufuli of Tanzania and the late President Nkurunziza of Burundi who did not take COVID-19 seriously. They urged their citizens to just trust in God to take care of them. President Magufuli simply declared his country COVID-19-free, thanks to the citizens’ prayers. Ironically, President Nkurunziza has since died last June allegedly from COVID-19–because his wife was known to have contracted the virus.

While there is nothing wrong with prayer by religious believers, abundant evidence now shows that prayer alone does not prevent people from contracting the virus or dying from it. To believe otherwise would be contrary to what believers know to be true that God helps those who help themselves, in this case, by following the recommended preventive measures. 

The call for developing COVID-19 vaccines was welcomed by most but opposed by a minority of Africans. Those opposing it argued that the virus was a hoax to begin with and that its threat to health was highly exaggerated by the big pharmaceutical companies for their financial gains. While it is true that these companies are in the business of making money, it is also equally true that the virus does pose serious threats to people’s health. Unfortunately, the big pharmaceutical companies are the ones with the manpower, equipment, and finance to develop and produce vaccines at the speed and scale needed to arrest the epidemic as soon as possible. In any case, other entities are free to develop their own vaccines.

Sweeping the continent and the rest of the world was the allegation that the plan to produce COVID-19 vaccine was Bill Gates’ population control program using vaccine to sterilize Africans. Of course, there is no evidence to support the claim. If anything, the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends millions of dollars funding biomedical research to improve the health of Africans contradicts such an allegation. Nevertheless, such false claims about the vaccine may discourage Africans from participating in the clinical trials to determine their efficacy and safety. If that happens, we shall never know whether the vaccine works in Africans or not.

It was also alleged that vaccines are useless because no vaccine has ever eliminated viral diseases. This claim is patently false. Of course, there is no evidence to support the claim. If anything, there are at least two known diseases which have been eradicated by vaccination: smallpox (human) by 1980 and rinderpest (cattle) by 2010. There are others (polio, measles, etc.) which are close to being eradicated worldwide. Unfortunately, it requires the cooperation of all countries to eradicate an infectious disease, which requires about 9-10 consecutive years of   zero detection. Also, there are some diseases (polio and yellow fever) which have been eliminated completely in certain regions (north America and Europe) where the people complied with the vaccination programs.

The DNA- and mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines being developed are alleged to be creating genetically modified organisms (GMO). As such, Africans should reject them because, again, it is a plot to annihilate black people. Of course, this is a complete misunderstanding of the technology involved in making these types of vaccines. First, there are 11 different types of vaccines being developed. The number is now reduced to a few most promising ones, including convalescent serum and factory produced monoclonal antibodies for passive immunization, virus protein subunits (pieces of virus protein), and mRNA- and DNA-based vaccines. Without going into the technical details, neither the DNA nor the mRNA vaccines used for making the vaccines modify the hereditary material (DNA) of vaccinated persons. Instead, they are used for producing virus proteins which stimulate the body to make antibodies and activate T cells against the virus. Since the genes of the immunized persons are not genetically altered, they cannot be genetically modified organisms (GMO). Also, since viruses are not organisms because they lack organs, the pieces of DNA or mRNA making up the vaccine cannot be called GMO.

Some doctors in Africa as well as those in the Diaspora, one of whom appeared at a press conference at the USA White House, claimed that hydroxychloroquine cured the disease by killing the virus and that wearing masks did not work. However, scientists and physicians who tested the drug in Europe, China as well as America did not find it to cure COVID-19 as claimed. At best, it has some benefits depending on how and when the treatment is administered. It is also now generally accepted that wearing masks does prevent virus transmission.

Social media throughout Africa became inundated with calls to return to indigenous medicine for curing and preventing COVID-19. They argued that indigenous remedies are the simplest and most accessible cure and preventive medicine. The most suggested common natural cures were concoctions of citric fruits, ginger, garlic, and other herbs. Many foods, herbs, and minerals such as zinc were claimed to be effective in fighting COVID-19 because they allegedly boost the immune system. The President of Madagascar even claimed that his country has an indigenous concoction that is a cure for the virus. Although some of these extracts and minerals might have some benefits, their effectiveness is always based on subjective and not objective evaluations in carefully controlled studies. Often, the claims of boosting the immune system are nothing more than a marketing buzz word to sell something.

Among the Acholi people in northern Uganda, a ritual called “ryamo gemo”, chasing away epidemics, was performed. It involves setting a day on which the whole community makes noise beginning from the east to the west where the epidemic is supposed to flee to. Though this ritual may have no effect on the virus, at least it may help to unite the community to act collectively against a common enemy. For those who believe in it, it helps to reduce stress and thus allowing the body to fight the infection more effectively.

It is now a fact that COVID-19 is not a hoax. Despite all the fake news and misleading information, most Africans have now adopted  the internationally accepted evidence-based approach for controlling the virus while waiting for the development of better treatment drugs and efficacious and safe vaccines which are just around the corner.