Before it changed the title of one of its puzzled think pieces about the coronavirus’s inability to kill Africans in numbers predicted by doomsayers, the BBC speculated whether poverty could explain the mystery of Africa’s low death rate.
When I read the headline, and the article that followed it, I imagined the author (Andrew Harding), throwing his hands up in exasperation as he dispatched the report to his editor. Something tells me he has been waiting too long to send home dark articles about Africans dying by the thousands, complete with pictures of mass burials and little orphans with dirty tear-streaked cheeks.
That the predictions did not materialize (as they did in the West African Ebola outbreak) means entire narratives have been turned on their heads. But because the narrative of utter destitution is so deeply ingrained in the Western media’s conceptual framework for reporting on the continent, it is hard for reporters to explain how Africa has been escaping the latest pandemic relatively unscathed using any other terms.
The BBC changed its headline after many Africans raised an uproar online, contending that it was patronizing and condescending. In its notice about the change, the BBC declared that it did not mean to “cause offence”. And while the call of civility bids me respect the apology, I do not think that not meaning to offend is a valid defence. No media worthy of the name should fear causing offence. Your job, dear BBC, is not to avoid offending — it is to tell the truth.
And the truth is that no one knows why Africa is escaping the pandemic so lightly while the rest of the world struggles. And poverty probably has nothing to do with it, for the simple reason that across the world, in the hardest hit parts of the rich world, it is the poor who fill the ranks of the infected and deceased. And, even if we ignore the rich world, other relatively poor regions, like India, haven’t had nearly as good a run as Africa.
In March, when I first pointed out early signs that Africa would likely be spared the worst effects of the pandemic, contrary to the predictions of experts and pundits, I singled out two factors the doomsayers had overlooked. As I contended then, Africa’s relatively low exposure to China and its recent battle-hardened experience in dealing with infectious disease outbreaks meant that it enjoyed a sneaky tactical advantage.
Since then, many other factors have been offered up, by pundits and scientists alike, as possible reasons for the continent’s immense fortune while the rest of the world buckles under the weight of the invisible enemy.
The BBC’s ill-fated attempt to nominate poverty as a contender for top spot among the possible factors follows a long trail of speculation. The continuing widespread use of the BCG vaccine in Africa, long after the rest of the world moved on from this particular therapy, has been suspected of giving Africans cross-immunity to the coronavirus.
Hypotheses to date have also included Africa’s relatively youthful population (standing strong against a virus that has bared its deadliest teeth against the elderly) and Africa’s warmer climate, which might be neutralizing the virus before it can spread. Africa’s population is also still predominantly rural, despite recent rapid urbanization. While in the cities around the world people have to be reminded to avoid coming too close to one another, they are already naturally spaced out in Africa’s rural areas.
There is also the fact that most African governments, with some notable exceptions like Tanzania, acted swiftly to implement standard anti-COVID-19 measures. Many were in fact so over-enthusiastic about being seen as taking the virus seriously that they opened wide the floodgates of corruption and significantly injured democratic freedoms.
Here in Nairobi, I still can’t leave my house unencumbered by a mask, or walk out after 9.00 pm without risking arrest and extortion by members of Kenya’s corrupt police force. Only 622 Kenyans have so far been dispatched by COVID-19. Unfortunate? No doubt. Sufficient for the government to keep treating me like a high school boy? Please.
For what they are worth, none of the hypotheses proffered has been proven conclusively to be Africa’s magical remedy. Some are being investigated while others continue to be overlooked. Yet others, like poverty, are unlikely to be investigated further, except by dolt-headed journalists and editors looking to advance the narrative of Africa’s destitution.
But if anything has been proven conclusively, so far at least, it is merely that Africans have not dropped dead like flies because of the coronavirus. At the risk of sounding vainglorious, we have refused to die, in blatant defiance of the predictions of smug and condescending Western media outlets made at the beginning of the pandemic.
There are those who are still holding out for the theory that Africa is yet to be hit by the coronavirus tsunami. They insist that a shadow still hangs over Africa, and wait on the sidelines to post morbid reports when the sky eventually falls. While I agree that it isn’t yet time to throw caution to the winds and to take a victory lap, I can also declare that in the match of Africa vs COVID-19, this grand old continent has taken the first rounds.
And while everyone else struggles to explain Africa’s incredible resilience, and while I continue to think up better words to fulminate against my government’s continuing senseless heavy-handedness, the fact that we have defied expectations so thoroughly, once again, fills me with great hope for the future of this dear land.