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Sahara Desert, Morocco (Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash)

In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond examines various factors that led to instances of societal collapse in the past, and argues that our modern society faces many of these same challenges but on a larger scale. Today, let alone the collapse of societies, there is even a risk to the survival of our species.

Diamond was one of the first to propose that climate change and environmental degradation could lead civilizations to collapse. According to him, our current society is unsustainable and unless we make profound changes in behavior. History he showed us is full of examples of civilizational collapse because of limited resources and exploding populations.

Africa is the focus of world population growth this century. The African population is expected to increase from about 1.3 billion in 2020 to 4.5 billion by 2100, the biggest change in human history in just a few generations. If economic development and industrialization continue to be based on fossil fuel, it would probably mean the end of the planet.

Climate change and the environmental consequences will have increasing impact on the continent in the next few years. As we saw with the recent locust invasion in East Africa, Africa will see a number of environmental challenges, ranging from desertification to natural disasters, and new pandemics similar to Ebola could arrive very soon. This, coupled with a population explosion humankind, could make Africa the first “failed continent” in human history.

Any country would struggle to provide subsidized shelter, education, jobs, healthcare, and pensions for such a fast-growing population. Nor will it be possible to manage the brutal urbanization that will inevitably follow the provision of the required infrastructure, transportation, and telecommunications.

Looking to emulate “First World” societies, the youth in Africa will want improved living standards, and if they cannot get them at home, they will go in search of it, making the current migration surge to Western countries look like a picnic.

 

Political and Economic Challenges

Fast population growth also has implications for democracy. Many African dictators have been in power for decades. Neither party systems nor civil society organizations seem to be able to take the lead in a democratic transition. Compounding the problems of inefficient institutions, endemic corruption, and a lack of capacity and know-how are weak states, climate change, and resource scarcity. It’s a recipe for collapse. And COVID-19 has become a threat multiplier.

Besides the health crisis, the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for Africa will be the economic and political ones. A report by the African Union warns that Africa could lose about 20 million jobs in 2020 due to the pandemic. This report was, however, done at the beginning of the spread of the disease in Africa, when there were relatively few cases. Another study, “Tackling COVID-19 in Africa” by McKinsey & Company—also compiled at the beginning of the pandemic on the continent—predicted that Africa’s economies could experience a loss of between US$90 billion and US$200 billion in 2020. But if the pandemic were to continue into 2021, as is starting to appear likely, things will get much worse.

For post-pandemic recovery, there would therefore be a strong need to increase the welfare state in all African countries, with Keynesian policies of government support. But this risks a mounting debt crisis for many African states. Africa already has some of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world, including Eritrea with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 127 percent and Mozambique with a ratio of 124 percent.

Competition among the major world powers has led to China in particular seeking to gain influence on the African continent by using debt-trap diplomacy. It extends large loans for infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative, but uses these investments to demand greater influence and access to commodities.

At social and political level, much unrest and instability are anticipated as the economic crisis unfolds this year and even more so next year. Furthermore, political heavy-handedness and anti-democratic enforcement measures will risk provoking more popular unrest. Since refugees, migrants, and displaced people across Africa are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission, governments should help to control the refugee camps and avoid border closures that could put vulnerable people at greater risk. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the health infrastructure in Africa is inadequate to deal with such crises.

 

An Opportunity for Change

Yet not all is lost. The future always brings challenges and threats, but also possibilities and opportunities.

Africa could still do a lot with good leadership and cooperation. And the post-COVID-19 era could provide the opportunity for change. The most important step for Africa in the near future is to move rapidly toward an integrated market by implementing the African Free Trade Zone, and at the same time to have the support of Europe.

 The Mediterranean could again become the bridge between Europe and Africa, with the possibility to make societies on either side flourish again. Instead of being the cemetery for migrants trying to cross its waters, the Mediterranean could become the connector between civilizations and histories, markets and people, for a future of prosperity and peace on both shores.

To make Africa the region of opportunities, both the Europe Union and the African Union will have to invest in the stability of the continent and in the human security of its people.

The United Nations has defined human security as “freedom from fear, from want, and from indignity,” but human security in Africa is at the lowest level in the world.

To invest in human security in Africa means first of all to address the root causes of instability and to carry out a real “peace-building” process with investments at the social, political, and economic levels of society.

Addressing the root causes of instability would involve combating endemic corruption at institutional level, empowering civil society organizations, supporting democratization, and working with international businesses to stop the pillaging of African resources. It also requires speaking out about human rights violations, tackling the security-development nexus, fighting armed groups benefitting from economic underdevelopment, supporting local economic development, and ending gender inequality and violence against women.

 

A Marshall Plan For Africa

Europe and the African continent will have to make important choices over the next few decades after the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which will be much worse than the economic downturn that started in 1929 leading to the "Great Depression."

This will be the decisive century for the survival of the world, and Africa and Europe will take center stage. The European Union could consider something similar to the United States’ Marshall Plan, a program to provide aid to a devastated Europe after World War II. My own country, Italy, was the third largest recipient of Marshall Plan aid. Decades after independence, African countries are still recovering from the effects of colonialism and the dictatorships that followed it, which Europe often supported. A similar plan should be developed for these countries.

The European Union will have to choose between pivoting to Africa or looking inward while struggling with domestic economic stagnation, and possibly losing the opportunity to become the cooperative leader that the world needs in this century. And Africa will have to decide whether it will look to the future or keep blaming the past.

These are tough choices, but there is no easy solution for ensuring the future of humankind: we need visionary leadership and courageous actions, or face the collapse of societies.

 

Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

 

A man painted in the colours of Malian flag gestures at Independance square as protesters gather to demand that Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta leaves office in Bamako on June 19, 2020. Imam Mahmoud Dicko, one of the most influential personalities in Malian political landscape, called for a political march to be held after the Friday prayer, against Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Cameroonian prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute speaks during an interview with AFP in Yaoundé on October 3, 2019. (AFP)

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.

 

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Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a joint press conference during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 4, 2018. (Lintao Zhang/AFP)

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.

 

Lab technician tests samples for COVID-19 in a laboratory in Juba, South Sudan on April 6, 2020. South Sudan reported its first coronavirus case on Sunday, one of the last African nations to confirm the presence of COVID-19 within its borders.
A lab technician tests samples for COVID-19 in a laboratory in Juba, South Sudan, on April 6, 2020. (AFP)

(Juba, SOUTH SUDAN) As COVID-19 spread across Africa, South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, was one of the last African countries to report its first case. Despite having more time to prepare for the eventual arrival of the disease, the country has struggled in its response to the pandemic. Online and in hushed conversations behind closed doors, intellectuals and ordinary citizens are saying the country is on autopilot in its fight against the disease. To date, South Sudan has reported 1,776 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30 deaths.

A United Nations staffer who had flown into Juba days earlier tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on April 5, 2020. The case sparked outrage on social media against the UN for importing the disease. The incident exposed the sometimes-tense relationship South Sudan has had with the UN mission in the country since the South Sudanese Civil War began in December 2013. In just more than six years, until a peace deal was struck in February 2020, an estimated 400,000 people died in the war.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar Teny jointly launched the High-Level Task Force on COVID-19 to deal with the virus. This task force has so far coordinated and communicated to citizens the measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, informed by guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The measures included a curfew; a ban on social gatherings, and the closure of all points of entry into the country, schools, and non-essential businesses, among others.

The sweeping plan has lacked coherence and the necessary risk analysis to develop an all-round plan that fits the South Sudanese context. Given the country’s history of violent conflict, many underlying social and political challenges complicate the response to the pandemic. This includes the neglected healthcare infrastructure, economic crisis, and food insecurity. Roughly half of the 11 million population are dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Weeks went by without a clear roadmap or decisions made by the High-Level Task Force (HLTF), which led to the suspicion that the entity had been reduced to merely announcing the number of infections instead of formulating strategic policies and measurements. Decision-making was flawed, and there was no clarity on whether it was the presidency driving the response or the HLTF.

It should be noted that South Sudan has a collegial presidency—established under the peace agreement—comprising the president, the first vice president, and four other vice presidents.

 

COVID-19 Outbreak among Cabinet Ministers

First Vice President Riek Machar shocked the nation when he announced on May 19 that both he and his wife Angelina had tested positive for COVID-19.

Several other cabinet ministers, including the defense minister, also tested positive for the virus. Thus far, more than ten other senior members of the cabinet have tested positive, although their identities have not been revealed.

This paralyzed the work of the existing COVID-19 task force. In response, a new body called the National Task Force Committee was formed to adopt the task of the defunct HLTF. Vice President Hussein Abdelbagi Akol was put in charge, but he tested positive barely two weeks after taking the leadership position, further plunging the country’s fight against the pandemic into uncertainty.

Since then, other leaders in government and civilian life have tested positive for COVID-19, including Vice President James Wani Igga, who is in charge of the economic cluster; several members of cabinet; as well as military and civilian leaders, of whom some have died.

 

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A woman submits to a COVID-19 nasal swab in Juba, South Sudan, in April. (AFP)

 

Long-Term Consequences

The government’s mishandling of the pandemic will have dire consequences in the long term and exacerbate existing socio-political problems.

In the meantime, fighting between the army and armed opposition groups in Central Equatoria, and intercommunal violence in Jonglei and Bahr El Ghazal have created another layer of associated problems. There were reports of massive displacement of civilians, killings, kidnappings, and theft of cattle.

The pandemic’s effect on the economy is going to be much more devastating than the virus itself, mainly because it will have a serious direct impact on many more people. The government has worsened the impact by its approach to the pandemic, which has been described as a scorched-earth policy, rendering useless the indispensable sources of livelihood for many people.

It should be recalled that four out of five South Sudanese live below the poverty line, and these four work in the informal sector, which has been hardest hit by the government’s containment measures. A local said, “We made sacrifices for as long as those very orders were in place, yet reaped an exponential surge in cases of corona.”

The window of opportunity to contain the outbreak was misused. Now, most South Sudanese do not have a social safety net to endure directives that have rendered their sources of livelihood obsolete. Job losses have been reported as businesses cut down on employee numbers, and prospects for employment have dwindled under the cloud of COVID-19.

In recent months, the price of oil—which accounts for more than 90 percent of government revenue—has plummeted, further undermining the government’s capability to do anything meaningful in regard to socio-economic planning and wellbeing of citizens. As the containment measures have negatively impacted the economy, non-oil revenue has also diminished, eroding government’s ability to provide basic services.

 

Back to “Normal”

Some of the containment measures have since been relaxed. All points of entry have been opened for domestic and international traffic, and businesses are permitted to reopen providing they implement physical distancing and wearing of masks.

For now, ordinary citizens in the streets of the capital Juba console themselves with the knowledge that COVID-19 is less lethal than Ebola (which has fortunately not crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda to the south), and that it is mainly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are at risk of developing severe complications. Most people have resumed their normal activities, disregarding COVID-19 guidelines.

 

Patrick Anyama is a freelance writer in Juba, South Sudan.

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Medical staff at Bwera Hospital in Bwera, Uganda, near the border with the DRC, rehearse working in protective gear in an Ebola treatment unit in December 2018. A number of units were set up to prepare for possible cases after the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, in August 2018. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP)

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 WHOMédecins Sans Frontières, which has teams working in various parts of the country to help with patient care, vaccination, and monitoring the spread, says all 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, says a 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.

 

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A technician measures the distance between beds at a COVID-19 isolation center at Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, Nigeria, on April 7, 2020. The center was established with donations from Kano-born Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman and philanthropist. Via AFP

The pandemic that crippled most of the world for months has lumbered through Nigeria, most prominently by claiming the life of Abba Kyari, President Muhamed Buhari's chief of staff. it is the northern city of Kano, where the virus seems to have claimed the most lives.  

The city of about 5 million has seen a surge in deaths that the nation’s health authorities do not attribute to COVID-19, at least officially. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has reported only forty-five local COVID-19 deaths, yet the people on the street know differently. Gravediggers say they cannot keep up with the demand for burials. Locals say a lack of transparency has complicated the issue in Kano.

 

“Authorities have claimed that these deaths were mysterious”

 

“Some sources reported that over a thousand persons had died from April 20 to May 4 in Kano State,” says Paul Alaje, an economist based in Lagos. “A recent report also has it that over a hundred people have died in the ten days leading up to May 4. Authorities in these states have claimed that these deaths were mysterious. There has been clarification, however, by the Presidential Task Force that most of the deaths are linked to COVID-19.”

The virus has likely spread far more widely here than the NCDC is reporting, Alaje says.

 

“Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens”

 

The disparity between anecdotal accounts of mass deaths and the official health records of the authorities has triggered distrust in the Nigerian government’s narrative.

“From April 17 to May 17, 2020, Kano State has lost close to, if not more than, fifty prominent citizens, including at least seven professors, top serving and retired civil servants, media executives, captains of industry, first-class traditional rulers, and serving and retired security personnel,” reads a press release from the NGO Intersociety (International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law). “Deaths of their likes have also been reported in Zamfara, Nasarawa, Sokoto, Taraba, Jigawa, Yobe, and Bauchi states. The Kano harvest of deaths sprang up first on April 17, 2020, killing 150 in under four days.”

Whereas the official Nigerian death toll reported by the NCDC by June 2 was 299, Intersociety claims thousands have died: more than 1,500 people have died in Kano, 470 in Yobe, 200 in Jigawa, and 150 in Bauchi, according to Intersociety. These figures could not be confirmed by New Africa Daily.

“There are also independent or unofficial reports of more deaths of low-income and middle-income earners in Sokoto and others, but were wickedly kept from public knowledge,” says Emeka Umeagbalasi, chair of Intersociety’s board of trustees. Where these deaths are reported, they are attributed to other causes, including meningitis, Lassa fever, high fever, high blood pressure, hypertension, acute malaria, hepatitis B, typhoid fever, cough, and catarrh.

“Contradictions abound,” Umeagbalasi says. “Our firm demand is that all the infections and deaths in the northern states and similar ones in the rest of the country must be forensically detected and investigated, and their findings made public.”

Kano
The normally bustling city of Kano is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.Via AFP

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reassured the nation in a late April broadcast that the mysterious deaths in Kano were not attributable to the virus. However, the lockdown in Kano was extended another month, but elsewhere lockdown measures were relaxed on May 2.

 

Several staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples

 

The government in Kano may have acted to conceal the true statistics, says Dr. Lazarus Ude Eze, a medical doctor who monitors infection surveys in Nigeria.

In fact, Kano’s spike in cases in late April reportedly sparked multiple crises linked to the government’s attempts to save face. First, shortly after Kano’s testing center was set up, several  staffers were infected due to poor handling of samples; then some members of the Kano State Task Force got infected, too, forcing several medical staff to go into quarantine when they were needed the most. Meanwhile, Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje was seen spending his time lobbying the federal government to get a larger share of funding to battle the disease, which he previously said was not spreading in the state.

“The Kano situation as reported likely has been caused by a combination of meningitis, which kills several people about this time yearly due to the hot weather and poor ventilation,” says Dr. Tijjani Hussaini, coordinator of the state’s COVID-19 Technical Response Team. “Kano State is like any other place in the world battling with the scourge... We are in a rigorous investigation of the deaths in Kano, but as a scientist I can’t tell you exactly what the investigation will tell us about the cause of the deaths.”

 

Douglas Burton is a former US State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.

 

Johannesburg
Alexandra, Johannesburg. The township awakens to the galloping pandemic. ©Alessandro Parodi

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.

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela’s ndumba, where he consults with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Traditional healers discuss health measures against the pandemic. ©Manash Das


 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. “I am ready to help anyone with COVID-19,” says Sheila (62), a sangoma. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Joe Mashifane (59) spent two weeks at a quarantine facility. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Shops and informal traders have adjusted to new health regulations. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. A sangoma keeps a wide variety of medicinal herbs in his ndumba. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola practices holistic medicine and other spiritual cures. Her ritual tools are herbs, bones, crystals, and beads. ©Manash Das

 

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Blairgowrie, Johannesburg. Clinical psychologist Dr. Zana Marovic encourages her clients to use traditional medicine for holistic healing. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. At a clinic, all entrants must undergo screening for COVID-19. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Questions about people’s health can be compounded by testing for symptomatic patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A private laboratory carries out COVID-19 testing at the Pan Africa Shopping Centre. “Too few come forward for testing,” says manager Sifiso Mbatha. ©Manash Das

 

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Montgomery Park, Johannesburg. Westpark Cemetery has been allocated as a COVID-19 burial site in a worst-case scenario, according to Johannesburg City Parks. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Irvin Mothibe (32) self-quarantined in a hut for two weeks. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola prays to her ancestors to welcome her guests and receive advice. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola shows her repertoire of remedies, which includes mhlonyane (Artemisia afra). ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Traditional and modern ways are compatible. “When I consult, I make sure my ndumba is clean and sanitized,” says Gogo Majola. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. The weapons of a healer may include ritual tools and divination devices. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Lebogang Sello is a disciple of the late sangoma Credo Mutwa. “Our Khoekhoen ancestors were experts in herbal medicine.” ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The Khoekhoen people drank an infusion of wild dagga and smoked it to protect themselves against respiratory diseases. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), or lion’s ear, is native to South Africa. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela (32) asks his ancestors about the health of his patient, who has just left quarantine. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. The herbs of Southern Africa represent a precious source of active ingredients. Local healers preserve the vast ancestral knowledge. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A group of healers prepare to consult with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Our past is still with us.” People in the township do not forsake the memory of local martyrs. ©Manash Das

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. In the market of Kwa-Mai Mai, herbs and animal body parts are on display for customers. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. Animal parts on sale at Kwa-Mai Mai market. Some parts are said to bring good luck, entice a lost lover, or chase away a curse. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The pahla prayer evokes local and foreign spirits. The burning of mphepo (wild sage) creates a mystical aura in the ndumba. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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)

 

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Parcels are handed to residents at a food distribution organised by the grassroots charity Hunger Has No Religion in Westbury, Johannesburg, on May 19, 2020. The charity provides an average of 800 meals twice a day, breakfast and lunch, to needy residents.

 

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.

 

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A woman wears a mask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 virus at Adidogomé Assiyéyé market in Lomé, Togo.

 

Togolese doctors are set to begin a series of tests to assess the efficacy of traditional herbal medicine for the treatment of patients with COVID-19. Professor Majesté Ihou Wateba, dean of the University of Lome’s Faculty of Health Sciences, cautioned that these remedies won’t cure the disease or kill the virus, but they might help to strengthen the immune system by helping the body to produce antibodies that will fight the virus. Clinical trials are set to begin over the coming days.

 

A Caution Against Wild Claims

Togo’s approach is more measured than that taken by Madagascar, where President Andry Rajoelina has touted Covid-Organics herbal tea—which contains the dried leaved of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua)—as not only a treatment but also a cure for the disease. The drink quickly grew in popularity and attracted interest from several other African nations.

The World Health Organization issued a warning not long after Raojelina’s announcement, urging vigilance when using traditional medicine but still recognizing the potential of traditional remedies as viable treatments.

 

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Dr Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, attending a virtual meeting of the WHO executive board amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Dr. Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, said in a media briefing on Africa Day, March 25, that the continent’s COVID-19 numbers may not “paint the full picture” regarding the public health impact of the pandemic. He said Africa had reported only 1.5 percent of the world’s total tally of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of global deaths attributed to the virus, but these numbers could increase as testing capacity improves.

 

Access to critical medicines such as vaccines and anti-HIV drugs has declined

 

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 1.8 million Africans have been tested, only just above 0.1 percent of the continent’s total population. Part of this can be attributed to the soaring costs of materials needed to conduct tests, with richer nations edging Africa out on the global market. The WHO reported on May 22 that Africa had passed the 100,000 threshold for confirmed cases, and that the virus had spread to every country on the continent.

A WHO model has projected that COVID-19 could infect a quarter of a billion Africans and kill 150,000 people within a year.

Still, these numbers look good in comparison with the statistics from other continents, but COVID-19 in and of itself isn’t the only threat to Africa. Due to pressures from the pandemic, access to critical medicines such as vaccines and anti-HIV drugs has declined, along with elective surgeries. What’s more, the drop in wildlife tourism, which provides funding for conservation efforts, has meant that poaching has escalated, further threatening endangered wildlife in Africa.

 

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Jul 15, 2020