Before being struck by a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the Horn of Africa was already contending with a locust plague the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in several generations. A second, larger wave of the destructive desert locusts has been making its way across Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, threatening food security for millions of people and costing the region (along with Yemen) up to US$8.5 billion according to the World Bank.
The fungus has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects
The effectiveness of chemical pesticides to control locust swarms has been limited, at best, due to the swarms’ quick pace and size, along with limited resources as these nations and foreign donors focus on COVID-19. Thus, it fell to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an international research institute housed in Nairobi, Kenya, to devise more innovative and environmentally friendly means of tackling the locust problem.
One approach has been the use of a biopesticide developed from the Metarhizium acridum fungus, which has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects.
Commercial brands use this kind of fungus in their powder products. Such powders are mixed with oil and sprayed onto fields from planes or trucks. The fungus then penetrates the locust’s hard outer layer and starts feeding on the insect, sapping away
Another tactic homes in on locust pheromones, disrupting their biochemistry to break up swarms before they form and encouraging cannibalization among immature locusts before they gain the ability to fly.
A third approach is to introduce the protein-rich locusts as a foodstuff—either cooked or crushed—for people and animals. ICIPE is developing nets and backpack-vacuums to capture large numbers of locusts.
Burundi’s swearing-in ceremony on June 30 for new ministers of the National Assembly was accompanied by a statement from newly elected President Évariste Ndayishimiye pledging renewed efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the small East African nation. Among the new policies is a 50 percent reduction in the price of soap and reduced rates for drinking water in Burundi’s urban areas.
This is a marked change from his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, who was much more blasé about the threat of the virus to Burundi. Whereas other African countries were in some form of lockdown, Burundi kept restaurants, bars, and sports events open to the public, and top officials defended Nkurunziza’s lax attitude as a sign of his evangelical faith and belief in God’s protection.
They suspect the former president succumbed to COVID-19
Officially, Burundi has 170 confirmed cases, 115 recoveries, and one death, but they are likely undercounted. Nkurunziza’s death at the beginning of July was declared to be the result of cardiac arrest, but opposition leaders and foreign observers suspect the former president succumbed to COVID-19. There is concern that several members of Burundi’s political leadership may have been exposed to and are currently infected with the virus.
As the world continues to fixate on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is feared that efforts to combat malaria will fall by the wayside. Caused by a parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito, malaria is one of the most persistent and deadliest diseases in Africa.
In the Central African Republic, this concern is even more important as the country continues to painfully rebuild from a civil war that began in 2012 and wreaked havoc on the country’s already weak healthcare infrastructure.
There has been an uptick in malaria cases where artemisia-based treatments seem to be less effective than before
At the Pasteur Institute in Bangui, Dr. Romaric Nzoumbou-Boko is focusing his research on the possibility of a new strain of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that may have developed a mutation that has made it resistant to treatments derived from the artemisia plant. Medical professionals in the capital of Bangui have noted an uptick in malaria cases where artemisia-based treatments seem to be less effective than before. If this were true, it would be a significant upset to public health in numerous countries, not just in Africa, where artemisinin extracted from the Artemisia annua plant has been used for prophylactic and therapeutic malaria treatments for years. The efficacy of this chemical extract has been proven in clinical trials.
Dr. Nzoumbou-Boko analyzed samples at two sites in Bangui between 2017 and 2019, and could not find a strain that had developed a mutation making it more resistant to artemisinin. Although his finding was reassuring, the noticeable decline in the impact of artemisinin on treating malaria is motivating Dr. Nzoumbou-Boko to pursue further research on a previously unreported Plasmodium falciparum strain that may have developed such a mutation. He is seeking to conduct further trials to map the parasite’s potential artemisinin resistance across the Central African Republic in order to develop more effective malaria treatments.
Efforts by Cameroonian president Paul Biya to grant further autonomy to the Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, along with other measures allegedly designed to increase local power, have been put on pause due to the ongoing health crisis posed by COVID-19. These measures were originally proposed during a “Major National Dialogue” held between September 30 and October 6, 2019.
Among the various proposals, one of the more symbolic ones was a suggestion to formally change the country’s name to the United Republic of Cameroon, acknowledging the different histories between the country’s Francophone and Anglophone regions, which were unified on October 1, 1961.
The Cameroonian parliament also introduced laws to formalize bilingualism; establish “super mayors” for the country’s fourteen largest cities, to be elected by popular vote, who would act as delegates to the national government; create regional assemblies composed of a house of representatives and a chamber of traditional chiefs; and provide greater financial assistance to the regions.
Anglophone separatists boycotted last year’s peace talks
While emblematic of the Biya administration’s sincerity in granting further autonomy to Cameroon’s provinces, the government has taken a hard stance against any sort of federal system, creating an intractable deadlock between Biya and Anglophone separatists, who boycotted last year’s peace talks in protest.
Complicating matters is the distrust among Cameroon’s opposition politicians, who view the National Dialogue as a public farce and doubt the legitimacy of the country’s current ruling party, which won the legislative elections earlier this year despite a high rate of voter abstention, potentially as high as 70 percent.
The African Union (AU) has suspended South Sudan’s participation in meetings over its inability to pay financial contributions of about US$9 million for the past three years. Hakim Edward, deputy spokesperson for South Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs, explained that the country had not been deprived of its membership, but South Sudanese diplomats may not take part in or contribute to African Union meetings. He said efforts were under way to resolve the matter.
The failure to pay its dues points to South Sudan’s economic woes as it tries to formalize a unity government, a critical component of the 2019 peace agreement that put an end to a bloody seven-year civil war. The deal was struck around the same time that the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report detailing how several South Sudanese officials had embezzled state funds, and how lucrative oil contracts had been used to fund armed militias engaged in the civil war.
The suspension risks hampering critical discussions
Suspending South Sudan’s participation in meetings is the result of new measures the AU implemented in 2018 to ensure member states fulfill their financial obligations. But it risks alienating South Sudanese and hampering critical discussions, especially as the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. South Sudan’s healthcare infrastructure is among the poorest on the continent, and millions of internally displaced people living in UN-protected camps are at high risk of contracting the virus.
President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China delivered a keynote speech during a virtual China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19. The Chinese president began by emphasizing China’s role in providing medical equipment and teams to help Africa combat the pandemic, including the construction of China-Africa hospitals and the bold promise to guarantee that Africans will be some of the first to receive a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in Chinese labs.
This marks the first time the Chinese government has formally addressed the issue of African debt
He went on to emphasize the need for greater investment and cooperation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as pledges to help alleviate African debt through zero-interest loans that will mature by the end of 2020. This marks the first time the Chinese government has formally addressed the issue of African debt, which has become a major sticking point as COVID-19 continues to strangle African economies, many of whom are saddled with billions of dollars’ worth of debt from Chinese infrastructure projects linked to the BRI.
Soon after the outbreak reached most of Africa, Western news outlets began to openly ponder whether China would be willing to embrace the growing calls for debt relief emanating from numerous African heads of state, the European Union, and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
President Xi’s call for “taking China-African friendship forward” prepares the continent for a geopolitical shift toward China. This is, perhaps, how US secretary of state Mike Pompeo saw it when he said “no country will rival what the US is doing” when it comes to assisting African countries with the fight against COVID-19.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo declared a new Ebola outbreak after five people have died of the deadly virus disease in the city of Mbandaka in Equateur province.No one knows how the virus resurfaced during a time that travel restrictions are in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Less than two months ago, the DRC was on the point of declaring an official end to the Ebola epidemic that had lasted for two years and killed more than 2,000 people. Then new cases surfaced in Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri.Yet the authorities believed the outbreak was in its “final phase”.
“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face”
The Ebola cases in Mbandaka come at a time that the country is also battling measles and COVID-19. “This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization. “Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies.”
WHO has sent a team to support the response to the new outbreak. Mbandaka is a busy transport hub on the Congo River, near the border with the Republic of Congo, so there is concern that the virus could spread.
The Largest Measles Outbreak in the World
In the past year, the DRC has also reported 369,520 measles cases and 6,779 deaths, according to WHO. Médecins Sans Frontières, which has teams working in various parts of the country to help with patient care, vaccination, and monitoring the spread, saysall twenty-six provinces of the country have been affected by the outbreak.
Young children are dying from a disease that can be prevented through vaccination. Whereas the rising number of measles cases in the rest of the world can mostly be attributed to a reluctance to use vaccines, in the DRC it’s caused by poor access to healthcare. Dr. Xavier Crespin, chief of health for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the DRC, saysa lack of investment in healthcare over the past five years, combined with vaccine shortages, high rates of malnutrition, and ongoing conflict, has created a “national crisis”. Logistical difficulties because of bad roads and long distances—the DRC is the second largest country on the continent—contribute to the problem.
Over the past two weeks, the incidence of COVID-19 cases in South Africa has almost doubled, and now there’s a testing backlog because of a global shortage of test kits. While the race to develop a vaccine continues apace, local healers are striving to produce indigenous remedies based on herbal wisdom and plant-derived active compounds known to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as flu, malaria, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.
South African media described the first two months of the pandemic as “the quiet before the storm.” When lockdown was imposed in late March, shutting down the country’s economy, hospital staff buckled up for a rocky ride and citizens impatiently waited for the first opportunity to resume business as usual.
Now, the southern tip of the continent prepares for a relaxing of the lockdown restrictions. Level 3 will allow most of the workforce to resume activities, schools to partly reopen, religious gatherings to take place, and shops to recommence selling alcoholic beverages from June 1.
However, a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in daily deaths have created a dilemma for South Africans, who will return to their offices, schools, and places of worship amid fear and uncertainty.
Making a Case for Artemisia and Other Herbs
Since the beginning of May, African governments have scrambled to produce or buy herbal mixtures based on the artemisia plant.
Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina grabbed international headlines when he endorsed a local herbal tea named COVID-Organics, made of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). He went on to question the impartiality of the World Health Organization with regard to testing, and criticized the alleged Western polarization of the pharmaceutical industry.
In South Africa, the artemisia plant more commonly used in traditional medicine is Artemisia afra, known as wild wormwood, wilde-als (Afrikaans), mhlonyane (Zulu) or lengana (Tswana).
While scientists prepare to carry out clinical trials to test the potential of artemisia in the treatment of COVID-19, some people have already turned to traditional remedies.
“I drank wild dagga and sutherlandia three times every day and got better very quickly”
“I went to the clinic with high fever and COVID-19 symptoms,” says Irvin Mothibe from Soweto, south of Johannesburg. “They told me to quarantine myself, so I spent two weeks in a hut at Credo Mutwa Village. The great healer [Credo Mutwa, who passed away in March] had planted many medicinal herbs in the village. I drank wild dagga [Leonotis leonurus] and sutherlandia [Lessertia frutescens] three times every day and got better very quickly.”
Indigenous healers recommend a variety of natural solutions to their clients.
“When the pandemic arrived, we consulted among healers and we prayed to our ancestors,” says Sheila, a sangoma, or traditional healer, based in Alexandra, Johannesburg. “My recipe against the virus? A mix of sihawuhawu [nettle], isiphephetho[wild ginger], umavumbuka[Sarcophyte sanguinea], mayisaka [Thesium multiramulosum], and intolwane [Elephantorrhiza elephantina].”
“We are working on a product combining different local herbs and Artemisia annua, which is more potent than the indigenous Artemisia afra,” says Willem Bronkhorst, a director at the African National Healers Association. “I don’t know yet how effective this will be against COVID-19, but I can say for sure that it will help.”
Many healers from Johannesburg suggest they use artemisia in combination with valerian, mint, garlic, moringa, African potato, and cayenne pepper, ingredients that can easily be found on the shelves of a supermarket or pharmacy. “You can boil them and drink them hot or cold,” says Mmapelle Khunou. “Some sangomas prefer to mix them with porridge, to make it easier for patients to take the medicine.”
“It’s important to use the right quantities, depending on the person and how bad the disease is,” she clarifies. “If you are advised by the wrong healer or take herbs without prescription, you could harm yourself.”
What Standards for Herbal Remedies?
It is risky to believe in the existence of a miracle cure against an unknown disease. The World Health Organization does recognize the importance of traditional medicine and its achievements, but there are rigid requirements in place to ensure the quality, safety, and efficacy of a product.
“There are many therapeutic options that are being suggested as possible treatments for COVID-19,” says Stavros Nicolaou, a senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare Group and a key contributor to South Africa’s medical response to the pandemic. “At his point in time, there are no registered treatments that cure COVID-19. Whilst there might be many candidates or established medicines under investigation, none of these have been proven under clinical trial conditions.
“The pharmaceutical industry will continue investigating these candidate medicines under appropriate clinical trial conditions, and would only be in a position to make them available when they have been proven effective and safe in clinical trials, and when the necessary medicines regulatory agencies have approved them for specific indications.
“This approach is for all medications, including indigenous and herbal medicines,” Nicolaou says.
“The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people”
“Artimisinin [a compound derived from Artemisia annua] is a powerful active ingredient,” says another pharmaceutical expert. “However, one needs to apply rigorous controls in the production chain to guarantee its standard quality. The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people. But the healers also have to adhere to the conditions required of the medical profession.”
These requirements, however, raise suspiciousness among many healers: “We also took an oath,” Mmapelle Khunou says. “The problem between us and Western doctors is that we put the people first, instead of profit.”
Doctors, Psychologists, and Community Leaders
Indigenous healers do not just provide medical advice. Their input ranges from psychological to religious factors, while tightening the social fabric. Two months of lockdown tore families, villages, and townships apart, forcing a transformation in everyone’s life.
“Men are no longer able to provide for the family,” says Khunou. “If my man can’t do his job, I will question him and ask him to make a plan. But he is also human and has his weaknesses. His manhood is questioned: some men snap and become violent, and households grow apart.”
The recognition of traditional healers as essential workers would facilitate the diffusion of health practices and create awareness about the rising costs of the epidemic.
“I don’t believe in this virus,” says Violet, a resident of Alexandra. “Have you met anyone who has it?”
In the streets of the township, people walk and commute casually. Even where social distancing and the use of masks are possible, habits prevail. Small crowds gather in front of spazas (small shops). To buy a kota(a meal of a quarter loaf of bread, processed meat, and chips), you have to close your eyes to basic hygiene requirements.
“What about masks?” asks another local. “They tell us to wear them, but we don’t know why. Cloth masks become dirty and can also carry diseases.
“When the government makes announcements,” he adds, “they speak a language many people don’t understand. We heard no vernacular in the news; old people don’t even know what’s going on.”
A Rainbow Jigsaw Puzzle
When the first COVID-19 case was reported in South Africa, the nation was already on the verge of a financial crisis, while afflicted by profound inequality. President Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly called on his fellow citizens to embrace cohesion and brotherhood in facing the pandemic. However, despite the spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) that unites South Africans, there are visible discrepancies when it comes to the same residents taking practical action.
It is difficult, for a government, to answer to the business world while supporting millions who live in extreme poverty. Similarly, it is challenging for people with completely different upbringing and heritage to live shoulder to shoulder and understand each other.
It is also difficult to bridge the gap between private and public health, international standards and tradition. Equality in South Africa is long due. It is too late now to try to bridge tremendous gaps while the pandemic is raging on. COVID-19 is killing thousands in far better prepared countries, with state-of-the-art healthcare and cohesive populations.
What South Africa can do—and has done in many past instances—is to accept its uniqueness and take advantage of its complexity. If businesses and informal traders can sit at the same table, if medical experts and traditional healers could abandon prejudice and stigma to enter the same lab or the same ndumba (sacred hut or shrine), they could find a shared solution that speaks many languages: a medical, psychological, and cultural approach to be followed in all South African cities, townships, and villages for the benefit of all.
Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)
Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that the lockdown alert level for the country will be lowered to level 3 with effect on June 1, which would allow most people to return to work and even to places of worship. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa is just shy of 26,000, the highest of any country on the continent.
Economists say the impact of the pandemic will plunge the country into a protracted recession
Ramaphosa’s decision comes after weeks of pressure from civil society groups and opposition political parties to reopen the economy, which had been subjected to one of the harshest lockdown protocols in Africa. Economists say the impact of the pandemic on South Africa’s economy, along with its quarantine measures, will plunge the country into a protracted recession.
In the final quarter of 2019, South Africa entered a recession as power cuts by the state utility Eskom took a toll on the economy, and public finances were strained by bailouts to struggling state-owned entities.
In its April 2020 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund projected that South Africa’s GDP would contract by 5.8 percent in 2020, from growth of 0.2% in 2019. The country will require significant international assistance to blunt the worst of the pandemic’s impact. This poses a problem, as South Africa’s recent credit rating downgrade by Moody’s will make it more difficult to access funds.
The Beninese government has taken great strides in its goal of expanding access to drinking water to about 4.5 million people living in rural areas. The authorities recently created the National Rural Drinking Water Supply Agency, and on May 20 the cabinet approved the signing of agreements between the agency and the country’s seventy-seven municipalities.
The federal government has set the goal for itself of achieving universal access to clean water by 2021, nine years before the deadline set by the United Nations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Among others, the authorities say six projects are in progress in rural areas, including the sinking of about 200 boreholes, that are expected to benefit more than 220,000 people.
Benin has demonstrated some of the more effective water management programs in West Africa
Despite regional disparities in terms of access to potable water and a noticeable urban-rural divide, Benin has demonstrated some of the more effective water management programs in West Africa. A 2011 country status overview report from the African Ministers’ Council on Water found that Benin would reach 73 percent total coverage by 2015 (which it ultimately exceeded back in 2012), a marked improvement from 51 percent at the end of 2008.
Whereas access to drinking water has greatly improved, Benin still lags behind in ensuring sanitation services for all its people, which will require greater financial investment from the government and international donors to reach the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.