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Dubious remedies will not decolonise Africa

- William Gumede

So-called African solutions that are often uncritically accepted as ‘good’ do nothing for the continent

Many African governments, leaders and intellectuals’ misguided seeking refuge in quick fixes and conspiracy theories to deal with intractable problems have undermined development, good health and peace since end of official colonialism at the end of the Second World War.

It now undermines the fight against Covid-19 in Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic has now reached more than 100 000 confirmed cases in Africa, with more than 3100 confirmed deaths. While reporting statistics in Africa is often unreliable, it nevertheless appears that in Africa Covid-19 appears to be rising slower than elsewhere, taking 52 days to reach 10 000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, it took 11 days to increase from 30 000 to 50 000 cases, according to the World Health Organisation.

Some African leaders and intellectuals say Covid-19 is a Western or Chinese conspiracy, aimed to entrench their pharmaceutical or imperial interests in Africa.

Often diseases, development problems and violence are blamed mostly on outsiders – which leads to no or little decisive action to tackle diseases, development problems and violence; or the wrong solutions are embarked on. This is not to say that colonialism did not bring diseases, development problems and violence to Africa; or that former colonial powers do not meddle in the domestic affairs of African countries to the harm of the continent’s peoples.

Under the rubric of fighting decolonization, every African problem or solution to a problem is wrongly often positioned as either Western-originated, and therefore to be rejected; or African-originated and therefore to be embraced. Scientific and evidence-based solutions are then rejected as supposedly Western colonialism. Yet, science and evidence-based solutions are universal, meaning they are not restricted to Western countries alone, neither are they unAfrican.

At the same time dubious solutions are often embraced solely because they originated from within Africa. Many so-called misguided African solutions are therefore uncritically accepted as part of decolonization. Other ancient societies which suffered from colonialism or imperialism, just like Africa, such as China, Japan or Singapore, do not take the Africa approach to decolonization. Such countries take the best of their own and Western cultures and forge new solutions out of these; or they adapt appropriate solutions from outside for their own circumstances.

Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina has claimed to have discovered a cure for Covid-19. He has pushing what he calls Covid-Organics, an herbal drink, put together by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which he says can cure Covid-19. The Madagascan government has given the drink to school children.  

Rajoelina has provided no information about any clinical trials, tests or results of the efficacy of the drug beyond saying “all trials and tests have been conducted and its effectiveness in reducing and elimination of symptoms has been proven in the treatment of Covid-19 patients in Madagascar”. The Malagasy Institute of Applied Research look at the treatment of disease by African traditional practices, plants and animals.

Equatorial Guinea, Liberia and Tanzania have enthusiastically accepted batches of the herbal drink. Many African countries, leaders and intellectuals appear to have embraced the Madagascar drug as an indigenous “African solution”, as part of “decolonization”. Many have dismissed questions over the science of the drug as supposedly Western government, pharmaceutical and business interests against African “solutions”.

Rajoelina in an interview stated: “If it was a European country that had actually discovered this remedy, would there be so much doubt? I don't think so”. Stéphane Ralandison, Dean of the Toamasina School of Medicine in Madagascar has warned that the underlying research methods behind the Covid-Organics were “not fully scientific”. The World Health Organisation has said that: “Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world.”

Across Africa, in countries such as Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon, other so-called traditional African potions are being touted as a cure-all for Covid-19. In the Democratic Republic of Congo one traditional leader has secured a following with his alleged cure of inhaling steam from a concoction of mango bark, ginger, papaya leaves and unknown plant. There have been deaths reported in the DRC as a direct result of people using such African potions as cures for Covid-19.

Uganda arrested Lazarus Kungu, an herbalist who claimed to have invented his own traditional plant-based remedy for Covid-19 for endangering public health. Tanzanian President John Magufuli has called for prayer in churches and mosques as a solution to tackle Covid-19.

The African Union has been predictably be quiet – its usual default position on contentious issues where it should actually take decisive leadership - on Madagascar’s and other untested African Covid-19 remedies and conspiracies.

During the explosion of the HIV/Aids virus, many African leaders, governments and intellectuals also blamed Western conspiracies for its spread on the continent. This delayed tackling the disease causing needless loss in lives. Then South African President Thabo Mbeki questioned the science used to treat the disease. The late South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang preached the African potato, garlic and beetroot as remedies for HIV/Aids.

To deal with Covid-19, African countries must follow, what their peers in Asia, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan has done, by making evidence-based policies guide their strategies to tackle the virus. These countries have done so without conspiracy theories, blaming outsiders or sought untested dubious “local” solutions – and they have been very successful as a result. Former colonial powers now look at lessons from these countries in how they have tackled Covid-19. Now, there is successful decolonisation in practice. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg)