When HIV/Aids took root in Africa, and public fear began to spread, there were many snake oil salespeople who exploited public anxiety, proffering herbal and other remedies that were useless at best and potentially harmful at worst. We find ourselves at a similar juncture as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic.
On April 9, when Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina announced that his country had developed a herbal treatment for Covid-19, it was bound to provoke mixed reactions.
And it did. Debate has raged between proponents and opponents of the widely touted mixture, which has been dubbed Covid-Organics.
It is based on the artemisia plant, which grows naturally throughout Africa and is used as a traditional remedy for multiple ailments.
In 2015, Chinese researcher Professor Youyou Tu received a Nobel Prize for identifying the plant’s healing properties, especially for malaria and flu-like conditions.
As the social media conversation about Covid-Organics evolved, opposing narratives developed around key recurring themes.
In the absence of verified scientific proof for or against the mixture’s efficacy against Covid-19, the perceptions and prejudices of online commentators began shaping and polarising the discourse.
That this discourse emerged in the absence of verifiable scientific facts is revealing in itself, and it was a key insight into how global prejudice underpins much of public opinion on matters pertaining to Africa.
The Covid-Organics conversation had an estimated 163 000 Twitter mentions between April 18 and July 8, with about 90 000 unique Twitter authors voicing their opinions.
Twitter was the largest battleground for the debate, with almost 15 000 mentions on high activity dates.
In all, the conversation travelled through 49 countries, with Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Madagascar and Senegal leading the charge. The four forerunners were perhaps unsurprising, given their histories of colonial resistance.
Globally, France featured the highest, with 46% in week one and 17% in week two (in the US, it was 9% and 8%, respectively).
Volumes peaked in week three, and thereafter Nigeria and South Africa came to dominate the conversation after week five.
Kenya also featured, but not as significantly.
It began with Rajoelina’s stunning announcement on Twitter that Madagascar would launch Covid-Organics, a traditional remedy composed of artemisia and Malagasy medicinal plants. The initial responses from global media were overwhelmingly sceptical.
One French news report stated that Madagascar had validated the treatment “against the advice of the WHO [World Health Organisation]”.
Despite growing scepticism, however, African countries soon began placing orders for Covid-Organics.
Whether the herbal mixture was a preventive measure, treatment or cure for Covid-19 was not yet scientifically determined. Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Nigeria placed orders.
Several pro-Africa political narratives started taking root in support of the decision.
A defensive pro-Africa sentiment emerged between African countries. This mobilised expressions of pride in indigenous African knowledge systems as a viable means of responding to the devastating reality of the virus.
At a deeper level, this response was politically charged, a recognisable reaction to global perceptions of Africa as a backward continent that has little to offer the rest of the world; one that is barely capable of seeing to its own needs, much less having something to offer the rest of the globe.
These perceptions of Africa evoke deep pain in its peoples. The continent has been thoroughly exploited for its resources and its legacy of underdevelopment can scarcely be separated from that.
It was devastated under slavery and colonialism, and, in its politics, was manipulated in the post-colonial era.
Africa and Africans have never had the space to breathe; they have simply moved from one form of exploitation to another.
Africans wholly understand that the reality of how they are received in the wider world remains shadowed by a history of racism that prevails to this day.
It is the weight of this history that overshadowed the facts. The debate between the factions for and against Covid-Organics intensified and drove commentators into increasingly polarised camps. African social media commentators questioned whether the remedy had become controversial because it was African, or because it was untested.
Perhaps sensing these sensitivities, and perhaps due to the fact that Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the leader of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is himself African, the WHO Africa division took a conciliatory stance on Covid-Organics, stating: “Innovation in the search for treatments for #Covid19 are welcomed, but must be tested to ensure they are safe & effective. @WHO recognises Africa’s long history of traditional medicine & the important role that practitioners play in providing care.”
Later, several well-recognised research institutions, both Western and African, announced they were investigating the healing properties of the artemisia plant through formal testing and clinical trials.
Four distinct themes emerged in the space of online contestation about Covid-Organics: pro-African, sceptical, pro-herbal medicine and anti-West. They are particularly revealing, as they are underpinned by different values.
While the sceptical reactions and pro-herbal medicine groupings were largely predictable, the pro-Africa and anti-West sentiment that emerged revealed a deeper underlying tension that runs through the debate.
On the one hand, the pro-Africa and anti-West narratives were driven by a need to assert African identity and value in the 21st century and, on the other, were driven by deep dissatisfaction with how Africa and its people are perceived across the world.
No other continent has suffered the level of racism and prejudice that Africa has, and it continues to this day.
There is a distinct pushback against these characterisations of the continent, particularly fuelled by a youthful generation that is taking control of their identity and envisioning a new future for the continent that diverges from its historical casting as broken.
South Africa and Nigeria came to dominate the conversation, perhaps due to the large numbers of social media users in each country, as well as the size of their economies. South Africa, a latecomer to liberation on the continent, still has a fraught relationship with the rest of the continent.
Xenophobia, or more precisely, Afrophobia, has plagued South African society. Outbreaks of xenophobic violence that target African migrants and refugees have shocked the continent and brought condemnation globally. African countries and leaders in particular have raised their concerns openly in the media and chastised South Africans for it.
South African society still struggles with its relationship with the rest of the continent, having been effectively cut off from it for so long.
Pro-Western and anti-Western sentiments prevail in stark contrast in South Africa; a legacy of its apartheid past. Hence pro-Western scepticism towards Africa prevails in South Africa.
The word ‘prejudice’ stems from the word ‘pre-judge’. At the root of how this narrative evolved lie distinct prejudices. In this information uncertainty, sceptics ignored the fact that the remedy was being tested, not touted as a cure.
They also formed negative opinions without scientific proof over whether the remedy was effective or not. They chose to ignore that the remedy might well have constitutional benefits that strengthen the chances of coping with Covid-19.
When the reception of Covid-Organics is contrasted with how Western societies, including South Africans, received the debate around hydroxychloroquine, the difference is telling.
Hydroxychloroquine was smuggled into South Africa (2.6 tons of it) before its efficacy was assessed in peer-reviewed studies (it was first shown to have no effect and later to have an effect). This presumably points to the fact that a huge illicit market exists in South Africa.
It begs the question: Why would South Africans have any faith in a touted remedy that was, at that stage, scientifically unproven and cautioned against by the medical fraternity?
For that matter, why were hydroxy-chloroquine sales in the US boosted so rapidly that patients who legitimately required the medication couldn’t obtain it at local pharmacies and had to order it online from abroad?
In addition, the global market for herbal remedies is worth $5 billion (R83.44 billion), so it’s difficult to argue that the scepticism towards Covid-Organics is simply scientific scepticism. Clearly, more underlying prejudices have manifested around it.
Most Africans who were offended by this scepticism attributed that to anti-African prejudice and it is difficult to argue against that in a reasonable manner.
The Covid-Organics debate has proven to be about much more than the validity of a herbal remedy – it has become a metaphor for Africa’s pain.
Do you think African countries will ever be able to show the rest of the world that they are valuable?
At the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, associate Professor Peter is director and executive head, and Ghai is director of research and analytics