Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Kenya discovered its first Covid-19 case on 13 March 2020 when a Kenyan who had travelled from the US through London to Nairobi tested positive on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Before then, the narrative in Kenya, like in many African countries, posited that the virus mainly affected the developed world and that it could not lead to mortality in Africa due to tropical climatic conditions. Other claims contended that the immune system of an African who has survived for generations on traditional medicine and treatment practices could easily ward off the effects of flu-like symptoms that were associated with Covid-19. The debate on the efficacy of traditional medicine and treatment practices gained prominence as people in the urban areas began to aggressively purchase and stock assortments of traditional medicine once used by our parents and grandparents to treat us. These include ginger, garlic, lemon, and an increased use of chilli in food. An assortment of traditional herbs includes the famous Marubaini plant – Azadirachta indica from the Meliacease family – considered a traditional broad-spectrum antibiotic believed to treat over 40 human ailments (Kumiko 2019). In the rural settings of the villages we grew up in, Western-oriented health services are scarce.
The supermarkets and hawkers in the streets of urban centres stocked these paraphernalia whose prices suddenly skyrocketed. Now a topic of heated debate on social media, their various usage is indicated by a forum member message: ‘I’ve just started ginger water a week ago due to corona virus to my boost immune system plus it helps me lose weight easier’. The belief in African traditional medicine was further reinforced by media reports at the onset of the pandemic indicating the use of traditional medicine as a reason behind minimum contagion. This further augmented an information gap that was filled by lay explanations and assumptions about the perceived immune system of the African person.
Resistance and perceptions
The belief in African immunity to Covid-19, cultural beliefs and practices, poverty, the assumption that the pandemic is only fatal in the case of people with underlying conditions, and lack of trust brought on by an infodemic (overabundance of information including misinformation about Covid-19) all fuelled resistance to government containment measures in Kenya, particularly in urban areas. Life in rural areas remained undisrupted perhaps because the lockdown in Nairobi, Mombasa and other major urban areas signalled the urban nature of the pandemic. To rural populations in remote villages, containment measures seemed to signal that they are immune as long as they don’t come into contact with people from Nairobi – ‘the carriers’. Local administration is promptly alerted if a Nairobian has visited the village for purposes of reinforcing containment measures just in case they freely mix with villagers.
Yet, in these remote areas, cultural practice, such as funeral feasting, went on undisrupted despite government containment measures. Local administrative officials failed to enforce these measures on account of the fact that their public health measures contravened people’s culture. In other cases, family members in defiance of lockdown measures turned to the courts to regain access to their relatives’ contaminated bodies for a repeat burial with the proper rituals. Some went as far as seeking exhumation orders. Resistance to containment measures by the public was further fuelled by politicians who continued to address big political rallies in total disregard of the containment measures.
Managing the infodemic: enabling public trust through better management of virtual spaces
One of the reasons for lack of trust and resultant resistance to containment measures is due to the abundancy of information, misinformation and fake news that spilled over to the Kenyan populace fuelling mistrust between public and government policymakers regarding Covid-19 public health interventions. Perceived as corrupt and donor dependent, Kenyans were speculating that the coronavirus statistics released, and the containment measures enforced, were not real but a gimmick by the government to receive more donor funding. Kenyans argued that the government hatched a plot to obtain funds to service its external debts, and for its senior officials to swindle, but not for public health benefits.
Effective management of Covid-19 in Kenya and other African countries requires access to digital platforms that are acceptable to and owned by communities to manage the flow of information, minimizing confusion, risk-taking and harmful behaviour. Future pandemics in low technology settings with an expansive virtual space will need an appropriate risk management strategy to bridge the gap between policymakers and the public. Their aim should focus on enhanced information management to provide relevant policy directives and containment measures and at the same time debunk misinformation about pandemics.
Kumiko, S. (2019) ‘Herbal medicine use and diversity/sharing of the knowledge: the case of Rutamba villages in Lindi Region, Southeast Tanzania’, Journal of the School of international Studies, Utsunomiya University, No. 48.