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Coronavirus diary – Part 44

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
03 February 2021   |   3:55 am
This installment focuses on vaccine hesitancy among Africans. Those without the misfortune of what Professor Wole Soyinka calls partial amnesia...

(Photo by Matthias Bein / dpa / AFP) / Germany OUT

You should stand firm (on COVID-19 vaccines). Vaccinations are dangerous. If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for Aids by now; he would have found a vaccination for tuberculosis by now; he would have found vaccination for malaria by now; he would have found a vaccination for cancer by now. Let’s not think they love us very much. This country is rich. Africa is rich, and everyone is jealous of our vast wealth. We must be very careful.—John Magufuli, President of Tanzania.

This installment focuses on vaccine hesitancy among Africans. Those without the misfortune of what Professor Wole Soyinka calls partial amnesia, a nauseating forgetfulness of our historical past, would recall that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some French scientists had wished to use Africans as guinea pigs for their experimental cures of the COVID-19. In my first installment in this serial, I had observed that “Nigerians and Africans, in general, can provide the solution to this global pandemic. It would be a crime to wait to be market for sales of cures. But even worse is to use Africans as guinea pigs for clinical trials of alien vaccines. French researchers, Professors Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at Cochin hospital, Paris, and Camille Locht, Research Director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) are inclined in this direction thereby eliciting the retort of Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Demba Ba, great footballers and African patriots, to the effect that Africa would not be the playfield of the French. Countrymen and women, the point is that the race is on and the matrix is one of social Darwinism”.

With a handful of vaccines approved for emergency use, the matter has morphed into vaccine nationalism and the scramble to acquire the vaccines. Some privileged Nigerians have gone to the US and Dubai to get privileged inoculation. Maybe, out of egotism, and partial amnesia, or sheer survival instinct.

My probe through personal communications with friends in countries such as Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and personal observation in Nigeria reveals conflicting attitudes/perceptions of the vaccine. From Ghana comes the view that a cross-section of the population does not trust the vaccine, and think there must be something sinister about the vaccine and insinuate biological experiment with the vaccine. They will only go near the vaccine only on the verge of death. The more scientists-minded have suggested the conduct of local clinical trials before mass vaccination. The view that the conspiracy theory about the vaccine being meant to undermine the black race is profound. Nevertheless, some people are waiting for the vaccine; on the other hand, many are against vaccination based on religious and cultural reasons. This is the case in Malawi and South Africa. Albert Sharra, doctoral candidate at the University of Witwatersrand and founder of Society on the Internet Lab, notes, however, that “the current increase in death toll due to Covid-19 has the potential to change this perception particularly the fact that even ministers have succumbed to Covid-19 recently.” In Nigeria, the country’s foremost medical association, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) has advised the need for local certification before any vaccine could be administered. However, its state players, enamoured of filthy lucre, are estimating close to a trillion in local currency for vaccines. In both Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, it is one of mixed feelings. In fact, in Zimbabwe, the defence minister had claimed that COVID-19 was a nemesis for the West from God, especially those countries that had imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. In the words of the minister, Ms. Oppah Muchinguri, “Coronavirus is the work of god[GOD] punishing countries who imposed sanctions on us…They are now staying indoors. Their economies are screaming just like they did to our economy.” The punishment has since extended to the Zimbabwean power circle claiming its foreign minister, General S.B. Moyo among others.

Despite the vaccine hesitancy in Africa, its continental body has secured 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses for distribution to its member states. The African Union’s Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) is on top of the game. Indeed the vaccines are coming from the “dreaded” sources, namely, Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, through the Serum Institute of India, and Johnson and Johnson. As always, the continent is looking up to the World Bank to bankroll the purchase; and this could mean more indebtedness.

I found the viewpoint of the respected Ghanaian physician, Prof Felix I. D. Konotey-Ahulu, Kwegyir Aggrey Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, and Director Ghana Institute of Clinical Genetics instructive. He identifies two categories of public health scientists, namely, Genuine Public Health scientists and Public Health in Reverse.

According to him, “The latter came to ‘help’ people considered ‘unfavoured races’- Charles Darwin’s own term resulting in African ‘Paranoia’ about foreign medical research.” He also identifies “conspiracy theories” and “conspiracy facts”, the former was “exposed by President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama as conspiracy facts and openly apologised for.” The conspiracy theories thrived to the extent that American scientists deliberately infected Blacks with Syphilis over several decades; the investment of Billions on the “production of millions of genetically modified mosquitoes to ‘solve’ the malaria problem”, a modification said to be dangerous by some Public Health Scientists. The third evidence came from South Africa where some foreign assistants helped the spread of the deadly Aids disease. The professor notes mirthfully, “Is a ‘Paranoid African’ like me to be blamed for warning fellow tribes-people ‘Equo ne credite, Teucri Quid quid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’? [Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts!)”

Africans are not alone on the matter of vaccine hesitancy. According to William Gallo of Voice of America, “The U.S. military has so far kept its coronavirus numbers relatively low, thanks in part to strict discipline and the ability to easily enforce social distancing rules. However, as the Pentagon rolls out COVID-19 vaccines at its bases around the world, it is dealing with the challenge of how to convince service members to voluntarily take the vaccine…Pentagon leaders say they will not require their personnel to take the vaccine until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its full approval of the drug. So far, the FDA has only given emergency authorization that allowed for the initial distribution of the vaccine. It could be up to two years before the full approval comes …” Harping on the cautious note of the US military, Gallo quoted Col. Doug Lougee, the lead medical officer for the US Korean forces who had noted that, “This [vaccine effort] is an interesting situation in that it is voluntary…Here in the military, especially the Army, we’re not used to telling people to volunteer or asking them to volunteer for things like this.”

The central message in all this is caution. Conspiracy theories could be conspiracy facts. In the next installment, I shall address the issue of non-vaccine alternatives to COVID-19.

Akhaine is Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.