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Covid-19: An African Diary

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Picture: Jerome Delay/AP – On Saturday March 21, in the early days of the pandemic, Prince, a Nigerian money changer, is one of very few people wearing a mask in response to the Covid-19 virus outbreak in the Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg, South Africa. For most people the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For others it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.

By Koffi M Kouakou

Let’s flag the absurdity. For almost three years, we had been bombarded with official government narratives on Covid-19. Suddenly, all of them have gone almost silent.

I find it strange yet understandable, and unacceptable. I want to know why. But I am certain to get no answer.

Of course, Covid-19 fatigue is all over. People are tired of hearing about traumatic stories of deaths and depression. But we must talk about it, reassess what really happened and learned lessons from the Coronavirus pandemic.

Talking about it is difficult enough. Because of the pain it brought to the world, the uneasy monopoly on truth by specialist doctors, world governments and more so the creeping censorship that came with it. It’s been even more cautious to do so in Africa.

South Africa – Durban – 6 July 2020 – Goodman Vukile pushes a trolley while wearing a hand made container mask to protect himself from Covid-19 in Mayville, Durban. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA)

In truth, it deserves a documentary series more than a diary. Kept over two years, this diary is a selective account and fragment of memories about Covid-19 and its impacts in Africa, and on me. It serves mainly as a warming cry and a relief about the long choke-hold the pandemic and its associated lockdowns have had on me to force me into a personal health sovereignty strategy.

In the beginning, there were serious, spunky and brave conversations as the fear about the unknown Coronavirus rapidly spread with concern across the globe. Social media was abuzz and always-on as one of the few platforms of wider human interactions.

Then the conversations came to a slow lane, with a confusion of infodemic, fake news, conflicting government information and advice, and widening social media censorship to alternative news that contradicted official World Health Organisation diktats about the Coronavirus.

These days, despite the lifting of most Covid-19 lockdowns, much remains to be discussed to make a frank assessment of one of the most stressful and poorly managed crises in the twenty-first century. And the sudden hush about Covid-19, reinforced by the advent of the Ukraine war, calls for some concern. Has the world moved on already?

Here are the fragments of Covid-19 diary and my luckiest and yet most optimistic survival ever. In this personal Covid-19 diary, a work in progress, I share fragments of personal memories of the Coronavirus pandemic and the disastrous consequences the responses to it ushered onto our world since March 2020.

My method to keeping a Covid-19 diary was simple. Everyday, I recorded key thoughts, interesting events and closed off the day with one or two lessons and takeaways.

For example, on day 1 of the diary, from midnight on Thursday March 26, 2020, the official lockdown starting date in South Africa, I wrote “eerie calm & quite day. Fear all over the world…” Lesson and takeaway: “Be calm, patient, resilient and hopeful.” Fast-forward to day 100, I wrote “Peace!! Sungazing. I am still breathing. Therefore, I am alive”.

Pandemic scare in Africa

On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government officially announced the identification of a new type of Coronavirus (SARS‐CoV‐2), later known as the Coronavirus or Covid-19, as the cause of a severe acute respiratory syndrome in Wuhan city, Hubei Province. During the following weeks, SARS‐CoV‐2 caused fear, panic and was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11, 2020, with confirmed cases and deaths in more than 166 countries.

On March 11, 2020, when the WHO declared the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak a global pandemic, much of the world was in a panic. The fear and confusion around the world about a new virus ran like a fire burning through a savannah.

The world experienced a phenomenon of “unprecedented social and economic consequences”. Early on and as usual, Africa was the butt-end of concerns and the fear-mongering that the pandemic would put in disarray its dysfunctional healthcare systems and weaker poor‐resource governance. Already, there were ill-presented reasons that the “2 million Chinese nationals that live and work in Africa could potentially contribute to the spread of Covid‐19 on the continent”.

In May 2020, the WHO projected that the “Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic threatened a serious health emergency in developing nations” and that the virus “could infect more than 200 million in Africa”, reported Agence France Press (AFP). More precisely, experts at the WHO’s Africa office modelled that of the 47 countries “some 231 million people, or 22 percent (with a range of 16 percent to 26 percent) of the one billion people in the region were expected to be infected in the 12-month period — most of them showing few or no symptoms”.

Moreover, the WHO modelling study said specifically that the “new Coronavirus could kill 150,000 people in Africa in a year unless urgent action is taken”. And that Africa’s dysfunctional hospital and healthcare systems would not cope under such pressure. That’s close to a quarter of a billion people in danger of dying, when infected. Catastrophic were the assessment and the predictions.

Besides, the media made it worse by ramping up the outbreak with minute-by-minute news breaks over a 24-hour news cycle. Social media was abuzz with all sorts of fear-mongering pictures and videos.

Governments were in disarray. The terror was total.

Very few knew what this virus looked like, was all about and why it was spreading so rapidly across the world at a pace never seen before with a concerning fatality rate.

From infection to deaths, the message was clear. The world, especially Africa, was in danger of losing a great deal of its population against a virulent and little-known virus. At that time, very little was said about the recovery rate from the infection of the Coronavirus, leaving little room for survival. And the countdown to survival had begun.

The world was now scrambling to respond to the Covid-19. In panic, many countries declared lockdowns, the full closing of their borders with the aim of stemming the tide to any travellers and in-country movements, allowing only essential supplies into the country.

South Africa – Johannesburg – 25 June 2020 – Hairdresser Delso Phacule, from Pimville Soweto wearing a protective mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 as he does a clients hair. The government has ordered salons to provide hand sanitising stations before entering premises and have protective masks, which is a challenge if you work on the streets, especially in informal settlement areas. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)

Resilient Africa

Wild predictions that Africa would agonise catastrophically under the pandemic were the dominant health policy narratives. They were based on beliefs that the continent would be easier pray to its vulnerability to unsanitary living conditions, poverty, rampant diseases, dysfunctional healthcare systems and already existing public health crises.

“The predictions of mass Covid casualties were based on a misunderstanding of the continent,” says Richard Wamai, an associate professor of cultures, societies, and global studies Northeastern University in Boston in the US. In a co-authored paper, he tells why the pessimistic predictions have largely gone unfulfilled.

Africa has experienced fewer Covid-19 pandemic deaths than predicted and less than any other region in the world. Wamai asserts that Africa used “unrecognised strengths to help fend off Covid-19,” that “can be applied against future pandemics”.

Africa’s resilience can also be explained with rapid mobilisation with the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus (AFTCOR) of the African Union, with a continent-wide strategy, that included financial support and stimulus measures. But there also elements of generic strong immune systems and of some luck associated that kept the death rate low with the whole epidemic spread in Africa.

In fact, the mystery of Africa’s low Covid-19 deaths is less puzzling than publicised. Much research is now uncovering the truth and busting the myth about it.

Ironically and paradoxically, countries most affected by Covid-19 were the ones that loudly predicted and dramatised the impacts of the pandemic in Africa when the evidence showed that Africa was more resilient than other regions of the world.

Covid-19 lexicon

On March 15, South Africa began a three-week nationwide Covid-19 lockdown with Coronavirus cases reaching 900 and rapidly spreading across the country. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a grim televised speech, announced the lockdown while urging the police and military troops to be a “force of kindness”.

Chronology of Coronavirus in South Africa/The Africa Report

Fearful of the virus and its potential impacts, including losing livelihoods, most people including myself adhere to the lockdown rules. First, came the full isolation and no-contact from anyone, then the mask mandate and the social distancing. Amidst a confusion of information streams, fake news via the media, governments and social networks, much was left to this each of us to deal with the fear and associated trauma.

Still cautious and hesitant, President Cyril Ramaphosa only announced the termination of the National State of Disaster in response to the Covid-19 pandemic on April 4, 2022, after 750 days of restrictions. Nevertheless, Covid-19 is still killing people and there may be no clear end to its devastation around the world.

I survived, with many people, an ordeal we couldn’t fathom.

What kept me alive, beside the sheer optimism buoyed by a vast dosage of useful information and large dosages of vitamins, was the search and applications of alternative medicinal ways to boost my immune system.

The internet and social media were critical in my search for practical solutions away from confusing government press releases and conferences struggling to manage the pandemic crisis.

Luckily enough, a constant information tsunami of alternative ways to face Covid-19 was washing over the screens of my devices – laptop, mobile phone and tablets. From modern, traditional, herbal and integrated medicine to quackery, all were flowing to me and kept me alive.

Fortunately, Eskom, our renowned energy provider was efficient and generous enough to keep the lights on to keep me sane.

I also occupied myself with online Zoom lectures on Africa, family meetings and the geopolitics of Covid-19 in the news. And I hoped to turn the diary of my Covid-19 experience into a book titled “Confessions of a Covid-19 sceptic.”

I celebrated three birthdays in the meantime, after I caught Covid-19 on return from the Democratic Republic of Congo in December 2011 and survived it. I was not quite convinced by the diagnostic of my doctor as I could recognise the symptoms of Malaria.

As the Coronavirus also mutated into many variants, a new lexicon emerged.

“Flattening the curve,” “social distancing,” “mask mandate,” “PCR Test,” “unvaccinated,” “self-isolation,” “quarantine,” “anti-viral medicines,” “ventilator,” “co-morbidities” and “N95 respirator” were among the well-known expressions. My favourites were “asymptomatic,” “super-spreader,” “false-positive,” “infodemic,” “zero-covid policy,” “personal protective equipment (PPE),” and “covid19 scenarios.”

The impressive list of variants had peculiar Greek names such as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta all the way to Zeta. One variant of interest, the Omicron, was detected by South African scientists.

Covid-19 geopolitics

Interestingly, Covid-19 became highly geopoliticised. Great powers, mainly the US and Europe accused China, where the virus was first publicly discovered, for lack of transparency and even crime against humanity.

At first, China was widely praised for its decisive lockdown approach that many nations adopted. Its method helped to reduce the infections and death rate dramatically in China. China’s Zero-Covid policy while effective at the beginning is having detrimental impacts on economy growth, mobility and mental health in general. Hence, it was criticised as authoritarian and not suitable for nations with open societies.

Quickly, the geopolitics disintegrated into a divide between rich and poor nations, the global North and South. They disagreed over intellectual property rights of vaccine production, distribution, availability, access costs and human rights implications.

As Associate Professor David Monyae of the University of Johannesburg pointed out, “the Covid-19 pandemic further laid bare the differences between South Africa and the US world views … President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa was critical of the US and other rich countries’ rush to hoard Covid-19 vaccines leaving developing countries especially in Africa without access to vaccines, which the United Nations had declared a global public good. Further, the US failed to support South Africa’s quest in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to have intellectual property rights on vaccines waived to allow for their production in more countries.”

Covid-19 lessons

The inevitability of our vulnerabilities forces us to learn serious lessons among the innumerable Covid-19 pandemic experiences. Here are, not in order of importance, some memorable ones to ponder.

The first lesson for me is that a “healthy nation is wealthy nation”, with the opposite being also true. They go together and are twin sisters. A sound health and wellbeing are capital assets. They represent value to manage well.

Another key lesson was the ineffective of the long-term lockdowns to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. They may have contributed to the high death tolls.

The rest of the world should learn from the low Covid-19 casualty lessons in Africa. The origin of the Coronavirus remains contested although it was first publicly reported in the city of Wuhan in China.

A tsunami of confusing information and conspiracy theories are still rife about Covid-19.

The depressing and fear-mongering yet useful role of the media, with the dramatic daily body counts, was both alarming and educational. Many now believe that fear-mongering is a media business model, and that the media is an extension of pharmaceutical companies and drug manufacturers.

People, uneducated and educated, can be easily manipulated during the pandemics with a confusion of fake news and information charlatans masquerading as official medicine men and dishing out misguided medical counsel.

The experience of a global medical information warfare was stressful.

The mistrust against the WHO leadership grew rapidly and subsided while it struggled to maintain an independent brand of health and medical information clearing house and arbiter away from big and suspicious donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

The psychological consequences of Covid-19, global mental health, trauma, depression, and long Covid effects will be with us for decades to come.

A new technical health and medical lexicon appeared – flattening the curve, social distancing, unvaccinated, anti-vax, among others.

The geopolitics of Covid-19 showed that Western health systems, considered the best in the world, failed to efficiently manage the Covid-19 pandemic. The responses of Western democracies to the pandemic turned into a grave crisis for their nations while they scapegoated China for their incompetence.

And finally, health sovereignty, individual and collective, must be one of the most important human rights ever.

We survived

How in the world did many survive these undue long lockdown ordeals, even when there was no need to mandate them?

Looking back again, the global responses to the Coronavirus were fragmented, misguided, detrimental and outright uncalled for. Africa has done much better than the health specialist fear mongers and medical charlatans have predicted. The same people are now completely dumbfounded as to how and why the death toll in Africa has not been as high as they have predicted.

I am somewhat disappointed that the fear mongers, although still visibly prominent, did not come out to recognise their misdeeds and apologise to the families of the millions who died of their misguided projections and profiteering counsels.

But days of reckoning may be coming for leaders who blindly followed the misleading medical advice that led to the deaths of millions worldwide. Fortunately, Africa escaped the doomsday predictions of the World Health Organisation.

All along since March 2020, the world felt locked into a prison, an undeserved global residential jail with no real walls nor specific warders with unclear mandates but hopeless misguided rules against a virus that kept mutating. Like most people, I was trapped into that prison with occasional and essential trips to the neighbourhood grocery store to replenish my dwindling food reserves, catch some fresh air and sunlight.

Bizarrely, I started to enjoy the obedience mask that helped me to appear anonymous in crowded grocery stores. Yet, I felt uncomfortable with the feeling of a prison confinement with no end in sight. Asking myself when the ordeal would end, I kept hoping that it would one day. And it did, only on April 4, 2022.

Today, the takeaway of Day 14 of my diary still echoes in my mind, after I watched (again) The Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 American drama film, based on the 1982 Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. “You’re never a prisoner if you keep hoping for the future,” said Andy Dufresne, one of the main protagonists played by Tim Robbins, to Red, his prison buddy, played by Morgan Freeman.

Indeed, a large portion of the world was confined in a giant prison, their own homes. Many didn’t hope much for the future. The only difference, among the Covid-19 global prisoners, was that some kept hoping for the future. Fortunately, I was one of them, in South Africa, and I escaped and survived.

Koffi M Kouakou, Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.