On March 1, 2020, France24, a French news portal, reported on the low incidents of COVID-19 in Africa with this problematic headline” “With only three official cases, Africa's low coronavirus rate puzzles health experts”:
Whether it's a matter of faulty detection, climatic factors or simple fluke, the remarkably low rate of coronavirus infection in African countries, with their fragile health systems, continues to puzzle – and worry – experts.
The story interrogated the reasons behind the apparently low rate in Africa of COVID-19 disease that causes the deadly, contagious disease. However, many netizens read the headline as problematic because it echoes what history professor Melissa Graboyes describes as the stereotypical portrayal of Africa as a disease-ridden continent.
As of March 3, out of 90,892 reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, China leads with 80,303 cases, followed by South Korea with 4,812, Italy with 2,038 and Iran with 1,501 cases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
WHO's situation report also shows that Algeria has five cases, Tunisia and Morocco have one case each while Egypt has two COVID-19 patients. On February 27, Nigeria became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to confirm a COVID-19 disease, followed by Senegal. The index patient in Nigeria is an Italian man; the first patient in Senegal is a French citizen and the index case in Morocco is a Moroccan living in Italy.
African netizens irked by the headline
“Why will anyone be worried that a killer virus is not spreading?” queried Nigerian netizen Oluniyi:
I read this and it said. It is not only “puzzling” which we can chalk up to scientifical curiosity on their part, it is also “worrying” that corona virus is not spreading faster in Africa. Why will anyone be worried that a killer virus is not spreading? https://t.co/ZXr4OF9HSg
— Olóyè Olúníyì Gates (@OluniyiGates) March 1, 2020
Dr. Furaha Asani decried this turning of the “humanity of a people” into “story props”:
When you fail to acknowledge the humanity of a peoples, they only serve as your story props. That is why you cannot even fathom how they could dare to be better or more advanced in anything. Because ultimately, you still feel and believe you are superior.
— Furaha Asani (@DrFuraha_Asani) March 2, 2020
It annoyed Nimah, from Nigeria, that Africa would be interrogated for not having enough COVID-19 cases:
Watching the International community “interrogate” African countries for not having some many #COVIDー19 cases annoys me so much!
What the hell?!?!
— Nimah A (@MsNemah) March 1, 2020
Ghanaian Mac Jordan described the news report as racist:
Are these so-called “health experts” for real? This headline is troubling.
Lemme fix the headline for them:
“CoronaVirus Update: With only three official cases, Africa's low coronavirus rate puzzles RACIST White health experts.” https://t.co/TmcOx4AHKf
— @MacJordan (@MacJordaN) March 2, 2020
Developed nations also infect poor nations with diseases
COVID-19 was carried into Nigeria by an Italian. The irony of which smacks in the face of transferring diseases from developed nations like Italy to “shithole” countries like Nigeria.
The first case of Corona Virus in Nigeria was an Italian traveler to Nigeria, and US has more recorded cases than Mexico.
Let's get rid of the assumption that “poor nations always infect rich nations with diseases”.
— Onye Nkuzi (@cchukudebelu) March 1, 2020
European colonialism has long served as a conduit for transferring diseases into African countries.
Dr. Sam Okuonzi, writing in the Ugandan daily New Vision, stated that in 1839, “six infectious diseases accounted for almost all deaths in Britain,” — tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and smallpox. There was “no record or history” that these diseases existed “outside Eurasia before the advent of European adventures.”
Smallpox was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese colonizers in the 15th century, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Global Black History, a digital repository of African history, notes that Cattle Rinderpest disease was introduced to Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa in the early 1890s by Italian traders. Global Black History further asserts that the introduction of “slave trade in East Africa produced new patterns of settlement” that triggered the breading of tsetse flies responsible for the death “some 200,000 people” due to “sleeping sickness” from “the Congo, to Lake Tanganyika and eventually Zambia.”
Learn from poorer countries
The framing of news stories around major catastrophes by mainstream global media easily falls into stereotypical, superficial labels. In the face of constant, negative news about Africa, it is easy to conclude that nothing good happens within the continent.
The COVID-19 virus has not yet spread within the continent — as experts have feared — for various reasons. A major one — that does not fit the bias of Africa as a disease-ridden continent — is that African health professionals are more ardent in fighting infectious diseases.
As of 2012, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, accounted for more than 50 percent of polio cases worldwide with about 200 children paralyzed by the disease, according to WHO.
By 2014, WHO affirmed that no single case of wild polio-virus had been reported in Nigeria and “all laboratory data confirmed” no new cases. Consequently, in 2015, WHO formally removed Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries.
Nigeria attained this historic feat by “interrupting the transmission of wild polio-virus for a period of 15 months,” — an achievement that surpassed WHO's targets.
Dramatic changes like these do not happen overnight. It took some level of expertise to attain.
The protocol developed for polio eradication was deployed in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. Nigerian health workers traced those infected by the index patient, which was described as an outstanding piece of epidemiological detective work by WHO.
As a result, the African Union deployed about 250 Nigerian health professionals to other countries within West Africa to fight Ebola. Also, “medical experts from the US and around the world” studied Nigeria’s triumph over the Ebola outbreak to replicate the same results in their countries, as reported by UN-supported ReliefWeb.
Lest we forget, the cure for Ebola was discovered by an African scientist, Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum of Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was no surprise that Muyembe-Tamfum’s discovery was not as widely shared as news about deaths from the Ebola disease in Africa.
Don't expect anything different this time around with COVID-19:
I totally get why scientists around the world are puzzled by Africa reporting only 3 coronavirus infections. Maybe we hold the solution to it as well.
— Mark Amaza (@amasonic) March 2, 2020
COVID-19 is a pandemic that will affect everyone around the world: It's time for the West to learn one or two things from counterparts in Africa who have so far stalled COVID-19 from running amok in the continent.
Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.