Albinism is a group of inherited genetic disorders that occur in people of all ethnicities, but it is more prevalent in Africa than elsewhere in the world. People who are born with it produce very little or no melanin, the pigment that determines the color of one’s skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin also plays a role in the development of optic nerves, so people with albinism have vision problems.
In many African countries, albinism is misunderstood and couched in myth and superstition. People with albinism are among the most vulnerable groups in Africa, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is putting them at even higher risk. Conspiracy theories are being shared on social media platforms blaming the community for the virus.
In Malawi, superstitions about people with albinism persist, for example, that it is contagious, or that they’re cursed, or that they will bring bad luck. As a result, Malawians with albinism, a community of some 10,000 people in a population of 20 million, have long suffered discrimination, physical violence, and even murder.
A few extremist witch doctors believe their body parts have magical properties, making them the victims of brutal attacks.
The Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) has documented the murder of twenty-five people with albinism since 2014, and a further thirteen who are still missing. Thousands live in fear of being abducted and killed. When neighboring Tanzania moved to protect this community in 2015, it led to a rise in the number of attacks against people with albinism in Malawi.
Malawi is preparing for a presidential election rerun in early July, after the constitutional court annulled last year’s results over irregularities. “There is an [increased] threat of abductions and killings of persons with albinism ahead of the fresh presidential election,” says Ian Simbota, president of APAM. “And now we are hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As of May 4, Malawi had reported forty-one confirmed cases of COVID-19 and three deaths from the disease.
Simbota says in such an atmosphere of political tension and stress about the disease, attacks against albinos will increase, as they are wrongly blamed for the virus. This is one of many myths circulating about the virus that the Thomson Reuters Foundation has warned against. The World Health Organization describes it as an “infodemic” that could put people living in remote and rural areas at greater risk of being infected.
“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country.”
Other Vulnerable Communities
Maria Jose Torres, United Nations resident coordinator for Malawi, spoke at the launch of the national COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan on April 8 in the capital Lilongwe. “Through our support towards the implementation of this plan, we will be fulfilling our primary role of protecting the lives of vulnerable people in Malawi during this disaster,” she said. “This should include persons living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, persons with albinism, single-headed households, remote villages, LGBTI persons, persons living with HIV/AIDS, the elderly, refugees and those living in extreme poverty.”
Those likely at most risk from COVID-19 are Malawians who have HIV/AIDS. Some 9.2 percent of the adult population of Malawi are HIV-positive, one of the highest infection rates in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians live with HIV, and some 13,000 Malawians died from AIDS-related causes in 2018. Currently, about 89 percent of the Malawians who are HIV-positive are able to suppress the virus with antiviral medication. International programs such as the US government’s PEPFAR program help to fund this treatment.
Yet, it is such programs that are at the center of the controversy surrounding Malawi’s response to COVID-19. Civil society organizations have criticized the government for a lack of transparency and accountability regarding the use of taxes and donor funds in the name of COVID-19.
Simbota worries that money meant to help people with albinism and other marginalized communities will be misappropriated. He wonders why, when the government says it is working with vulnerable people, it has not approached APAM. “The government is just taking advantage of COVID-19 to squander funds from our taxes and donations,” he says. “Look at the way this so-called cabinet committee on COVID-19 is sharing money among themselves.
“Persons with albinism are among the poorest in the country, but most of the time they are sidelined when it comes to accessing Malawi's Social Cash Transfer Programme or loans.”
MacDonald Nyirenda is a social entrepreneur, activist, and writer based in Malawi.