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COVID-19 denialism still holding Africa back

Cai Nebe
August 31, 2020

Denialism is impeding the ability of African governments to curb the spread of COVID-19. State corruption and poor communication make buying into conspiracy theories tempting, especially for young people.

Kenia Corona Graffiti
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Maina

At the Kariobangi market in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, people go about their daily business. Some are wearing masks while an almost equal amount of people are walking without them. Porters carry heavy goods for trade, sweating profusely in the heat as they push their way through the crowd. They don't seem to observe Kenya's social distancing measures. One of the porters is 34-year-old primary school dropout Paul Amani.

"I don't believe the coronavirus disease exists. Look at the people around here: No one is wearing a mask. I don't think that disease has reached Kenya," he says.

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Meanwhile, 29-year-old university student Lucia Mueni also believes the pandemic is "a lie." She is in her final year of a project management and human resources course, and believes her education has been put in jeopardy by a disease that does not exist.

"COVID-19 was invented as a fake disease by China and America to ruin our economy because they saw how close we are getting to them. Open schools, open businesses and go the Tanzanian way," she tells DW.

Tanzania’s president John Magufuli declared the country coronavirus free

 in June. Tanzania has stopped publishing data on coronavirus cases.

Others see the pandemic as a way for corrupt officials to capitalize on aid handouts. Sixty-nine-year-old Mukami Kavilu only wears a mask on her chin so she does not get in trouble with security officials.

"If it was there, all the foreigners coming into the country would be stopped. It is all lies, they are just searching for a reason to embezzle millions of COVID-19 funds," she says.

Why do some regard COVID-19 as a "rich person's disease"?

Distrust in the government's motives and poor health communication have also fueled conspiracy theories across the continent in Ghana.

Haizel Bartels is a young professional in the tech industry. He is angry at the level of attention COVID-19 has received.

"You wake up in the morning and every news bulletin we have talks about corona and how many people are infected and blah blah blah. And people are dying out of fear. We have swine flu, bird flu, et cetera. We are not asked to stay at home and not go to work or school," he told DW.

Full community compliance needed

But this fearless attitude has created an uncomfortable climate for those who do feel threatened by COVID-19. Margaret Sonne, a resident of Osu near Accra was forced to leave a family party because relatives and friends refused to follow health guidelines.

"Almost 90% were there without a nose mask. A friend came by and was like 'there is no virus, there is no virus.' And it looks like a lot of people are taking the thing for granted. And that makes it very dangerous," she said.

Street scene of people not wearing masks in Accra, Ghana
Wearing face coverings and social distancing in public is not always taken seriously in Accra, GhanaImage: DW/I. Kaledzi

Believing conspiracy theories is tempting for many. Additionally, government inaction and corruption has made health efforts harder.

Doctor Gitahi, global chief executive officer at AMREF Health Africa, says African governments should use the law to enforce restrictions to stop the spread. He partly blames rising COVID-19 numbers on deniers of the pandemic.

"For COVID-19, the most effective measures are nonmedical interventions, public health interventions rely on community participation," he explained. "The more compliance you have the better. But you will never achieve 100% compliance even when it's about a vaccination."

Faults in official messaging fuel COVID-19

Health analyst Daniel Lartey says messaging and communication from the Ghanaian authorities has been a key stumbling block.

"Ghanaians are special people who revere traditions, customs and it's something we have grown with. We've not had much success in breaking down the message to actually break the belief and superstition barrier," he told DW.

Youths partying despite COVID-19 risks

But to understand why many people have lost their fear of COVID-19 — especially young people — one has to analyze what triggers their mind, according to Florian Kutzner, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Heidelberg. And transparency comes up again.

"If you want cooperation and altruistic behavior, you need trust as a policymaker and trust originates in one thing: from being perceived as benevolent. That means I understand what you need, what your needs are."

The problem, Kutzner says, is that young people often feel excluded by decisions made by older policymakers.

"The needs of youngsters, I think, are particularly underrepresented in the public discourse that ranges from a decline of COVID-19-caused restriction of sexual activity, a decline in supporting organized sporting events, the inability to celebrate, travel."

Andrew Wasike (in Kenya), Isaac Kaledzi (in Ghana), and Isaac Mugabi (in Bonn) contributed to this article.

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