With the West imposing Covid-19 quarantine laws against travellers from Africa, the future of the continent’s lucrative safari industry hangs in the balance. And, as Britt Collins discovers, a collapse in tourist numbers not only risks pushing millions into poverty, it also threatens the long-term survival of Africa’s wildlife, forests and savannahs – increasing the likelihood of future pandemics in the process.

Big cats, elephants, rhinos and other animals are among the countless casualties of the post-lockdown collapse of Africa’s booming tourist industry.

Safaris, hotels and private wildlife preserves have all but vanished overnight.

Beyond the impact on various countries’ economies, tourism is vital to conservation, ranger patrols and most wildlife-protection projects.

Without these revenue streams and the absence of foreign travellers, people in rural communities are becoming desperate and hunting giraffes, zebras, monkeys and other wild animals to provide food for their families or to sell for their body parts and skins.  

Alongside the perils that face African wildlife — poaching, international crime syndicates, governmental and judicial corruption — bushmeat hunting poses another graver threat of future mass pandemics.  

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According to the World Health Organization, more than 50 per cent of the new infectious diseases in humans are caused by pathogens originating from animals or animal products, of which 70 per cent have originated from wildlife. 

Other studies have indicated that the handling and consumption of bushmeat contributes to the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans. 

It’s an issue that concerns Angela Sheldrick, head of Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

‘We’ve seen a steady rise in bushmeat poaching over the years, and the economic pressures of the current crisis have only exacerbated the issue,’ said the Anglo-Kenyan conservationist. 

‘Bushmeat poaching is behind many of the most serious pandemics and epidemics in recent history, and if the practice continues unabated, I shudder to think of what it could trigger next.’ 

Such fears are shared by conservationists and park wardens across the continent.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, for example, reported a more than two-fold increase in poaching in the first few months of the country’s harsh Covid-19 lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

While rangers from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (pictured below) confiscated more than 10,000 snares from one Kenyan park alone during 2020 – again more than twice the 2019 figures – as people in the heavily tourism-dependent region struggle to feed themselves and their families. 

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If 2020 was a bad year for Africa, 2021 looks set to be even worse, with the introduction of punitive quarantine rules for tourists returning to Europe from Africa.

In the UK, for instance, arrivals from 39 countries, including anyone arriving from all of Africa’s major tourist hotspots bar Uganda, will have to pay £1,750 (nearly $2,500) to self-isolate for 10 days in a government-approved hotel upon their return.

These draconian measures – and the exorbitant expense involved – are expected to discourage travellers from booking safaris, as Western tourists opt to holiday in countries that are not on the so-called ‘red list’, despite having much higher levels of Covid-19 cases and deaths. 

Such populist measures are not just restricted to the UK, where African nations account for more than half of the ‘red list’.

Restrictions against Africans and tourists returning from Africa are being rolled out across Europe, North America and Australia, quashing hopes of a safari recovery this year.

One Danish operator, Deep Forest Safaris, for instance, had to postpone more than 90 per cent of its bookings to 2022 as a result of increased restriction against returnees from Africa. 

It’s likely to have a devastating impact on the economies of countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe that are heavily reliant on tourist jobs and income. 

Some 70 million tourists flocked to Africa in 2019, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation. 

Tourism contributes nearly 10 percent to Africa’s economies and the sector employed 25 million people, with safaris worth more than $12.4 billion to East and Southern African economies alone, according to the UN. 

With travel at a standstill, conservationists and rangers fear the wild animals that draw millions to Africa and make it so magnetic are more vulnerable to poachers.

Tim Davenport, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, believes that as lockdown measures around the continent continue and the economic consequences of this and the tourism collapse intensify, massive poaching surges will increase.

‘With fewer people about, it is inevitable that illegal activities will occur.’ 

Nico Jacobs, a bush pilot and co-founder of South African charity Rhino 911, believes the poaching surge has reached crisis levels.

‘I’ve done this job for 15 years, and I’ve never been so busy,’ said Jacobs, whose charity rescues baby rhinos orphaned by poachers and provides a lifeline to wounded animals.

‘Last year we had calls to over 40 rhinos in a period of 72 hours. That’s how critical the situation is now.’  

Every year poaching accounts for the death of 1,600 rhinos killed for their horns – which are hawked as bogus cures for everything from cancer to impotence in China and Southeast Asia – leaving hundreds of orphans behind.

‘If poaching continued at its current staggering level, rhinos will soon be hunted to extinction,’ Jacobs explained. 

With poaching on the rise once more, a small team of vets, rangers and pilots have been scrambled into conducting emergency horn-trimming operations as a precaution.

South Africa has already dehorned dozens of rhinos in three popular game parks, to prevent the further threat of armed poachers taking advantage of the post-Covid-19 crash in tourism to kill them for their horns.

Across Africa, lodges, camps and conservancies are struggling.

Even popular safari hotspots, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa – which has been the hardest hit by Covid on the continent – have had to lay off or furlough staff and stall or shelve conservation projects.

But those that survive this fallow period will likely bounce back once if and when things getting moving again.  

For wildlife sanctuaries and refuges that look after rescued animals and depend on volunteers and donations, the pandemic has been catastrophic. 

The lack of visitors has left many without much-needed revenue, facing mounting bills for food, medicine and general care.  

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Harnas Wildlife Foundation, Namibia 

Tucked away amid the golden sands and grasslands of Namibia’s cattle country, Harnas is home to nearly 1,000 big cats, primates, antelopes and many other wild orphans, as well as rescued cats, dogs, sheep, goats, cows, horses and donkeys.

Since its founding in 1978, the sanctuary has taken in thousands of animals that have been abandoned or abused and can’t make it on their own in the wild. Much of its funding and workforce comes from volunteers, who fly in from abroad for weeks or months-long stints at the site set amongst the stark wilderness of the Kalahari Desert, a three-hour drive outside the capital Windhoek.  

‘You can’t imagine the devastation this is causing us. No visitors, no income and so many mouths to feed,’ said Marieta van der Merwe, who began Harnas with her late husband Nick after they persuaded a man on a dusty Namibian road to sell them a maltreated vervet monkey.

They started hand-raising wild babies in their home and gradually transformed their cattle ranch into a real-life Noah’s Ark. 

This family-run 20,000-acre refuge has since expanded to become southern Africa’s largest wildlife orphanage, offering visitors the chance to touch, walk, feed and tend lions, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, antelopes and all sorts of wild creatures.

Wildly successful, it had attracted such celebrity patrons as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, as well as flocks of volunteers who fall in love with the place for its offbeat charm and menagerie of tame and wild orphans, who all have names and heart-breaking stories.

Some were rescued as cubs, like the charity's newest arrival, Desert, who had been kept in a plastic drum with no shade or water.

Others, considered nuisance animals by farmers, are removed from farms and brought to Harnas to live out their lives peacefully.  

‘When you see the state of the rescues when they come here, it really hits you in the heart,’ said Kaatje Steenhoudt, a young Belgian accountant who’d been volunteering on and off for months since 2012 and is now unable to return to Namibia because of travel restrictions.  

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In this quirky, otherworldly environment, the property features several rustic stone cottages with copper baths and private porches, tucked in landscaped gardens, for guests who just want to come and enjoy the animals, silence and mesmerising views of the sweeping desert.  

Now the once-buzzing sanctuary is scrambling for survival. ‘It’s a very, very hard time,’ said Melanie van der Merwe, Harnas’s operations director and Marieta’s daughter-in-law.

She recently moved back on the farm with her two college-age daughters to help manage the workload.

‘Things are so dire, Marieta sold her private car, jewellery, anything and everything of value that she could sell or pawn. 

‘We don’t have the support structures or financial firepower in Africa as in Europe, so the pandemic has been far more damaging here, but we’re determined to keep our animals alive,' said Melanie van der Merwe. 'We’ve dipped into our reserves, but I don’t know how long this will be sustainable. From next month, we’ll be going into the red.’  

Harnas needs a minimum of $700,000 Namibian dollars (approximately $48,000 US dollars) per month to operate. 

‘With normal lodges or camps, they shut their doors and wait out the pandemic, but with a rescue centre you still have to provide for and care for the animals. We need volunteers to keep it afloat. So, when countries like Britain, Germany, France and Australia, where most of our volunteers and guests come from, close their borders or impose harsh travel restrictions, it affects us severely.’  

With no income coming in, they have had to take other desperate measures, laying off half of the staff and shooting wild game outside the sanctuary to feed the big cats and rare African painted dogs living at the reserve.

‘Luckily we’ve had rains so everything is lush and green and there’s a lot of game around.’ 

Before the pandemic, Harnas had a steady stream of guests and 50 to 60 volunteers at a time, international travellers who booked several months ahead. At the moment, the animals are being cared for by a skeleton staff, seven European volunteers who managed to get into the country, alongside Marieta and her family and their long-time San staff.  

As well as preserving Namibia’s wildlife, the van der Merwes have a long history of supporting the nomadic San bushmen.

They maintain a free school and health clinic for a small community who live on and around the sanctuary grounds.

‘We’re providing for 60 San families, the most marginalised people in Namibia, putting 80 children through school,’ said Melanie van der Merwe.

‘Marieta’s trying to keep the people, because if they lose their jobs now, they’ll starve and start hunting wild animals, which is happening all over Africa at the moment.’  

Harnas expects the ramifications of the pandemic will affect it for many months, if not years.

'If you’re going through hell, keep going,’ Melanie added, quoting Winston Churchill.

‘Marieta is 71 and working like a trojan. She won’t stop caring for her animals until she takes her last breath. We’re grinding non-stop to get the work done and keep our heads above water.’  

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Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Sierra Leone  

Chimpanzees were destined to play an important role in Sierra Leone’s economic revival, when the critically endangered great apes were made the country’s new national animal just two short years ago. The government had plans to make the country a growing eco-tourism destination, building on the growing success of sanctuaries like the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, cocooned amid misty hills within a rainforest near the capital Freetown.

The once-popular tourist stop-off on the edge of the Western Area Peninsula Park, shelters hundreds of orphans saved from wildlife trafficking or bushmeat poaching in sprawling semi-forested enclosures.

It was founded by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila in 1995, seven years after they came across a sick baby chimp tied to a tree by the roadside. The Sri Lankan couple had bought the chimp, named Bruno, for $30 and nursed him back to health in their home in Freetown.

Soon, people started dropping off their unwanted pets once they became unmanageable and they found themselves caring for seven chimps in a make-shift sanctuary in the garden. 

In need of space, Amarasekaran set up the reserve on a 100-acre patch of pristine rainforest in the national park, with the help of the government and international donors.  

Tacugama endured through many tough times, including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, military coups and Sierra Leone’s brutal decade-long civil war.

Rebels raided the sanctuary several times, looting food and medical supplies, and nearly destroyed it as they seized areas around Freetown. Amarasekaran and his small staff avoided the rebel roadblocks by carrying supplies by night through the forest.

Even as the conflict raged on around them, they managed to keep the chimps safe. 

Now, once again, they are facing difficult choices. 

The reserve was shut for over nine months, starving it of vital tourist dollars.  

‘We had to make close to 10 staff members redundant,’ explained Aram Kazandjian, the sanctuary’s development manager. Around half the sanctuary’s revenue comes from foreign visitors. 

‘The staff and volunteers had been in total lockdown, not seeing their family or friends to keep the primates safe from Covid,’ Kazandjian added.

‘Even as the world has come to a standstill, we’re still taking in baby orphans at a shocking rate.’  

While habitat destruction and the exotic pet trade has left many chimps orphaned, bushmeat hunting remains the greatest danger. 

‘Poachers go after the mother for more meat, leaving the baby orphaned. They arrive very traumatised, having lost their mothers, and some come in with wounds. 

'We’ve just taken in three infants, all victims of bushmeat hunting.’ 

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One recent arrival, a three-year-old infant named Jean, was rescued near the park with gunshot wounds on the head and chest. It is thought he was hit by stray bullets aimed at his mother. Another was brought in with gruesome cuts to his wrists.

‘But the way he carried himself was astonishing,’ said Kazandjian.

‘Baby chimps, once they’re shown a little kindness, are really resilient. 

‘In the wild they’re dependent on their mums and aren’t weaned until about the age of three to four and remain with them for several years.  

‘We’ve got a surrogate mother, Mama Posseh, who provides reassurance, bottle feeds them, bathes them and puts them to bed very much like human babies, along with home-schooling and teaching them the basics, such as climbing trees and using of tools. We currently have 17 babies.’  

Before the lockdown, Tacugama had emerged as something of an eco-tourism success story in West Africa.

The sanctuary offered daily tours as well as overnight stays in six treehouse eco-lodges or traditional roundhouses with private decks overlooking a serene swathe of tropical rainforest.

Viewing platforms gave Western visitors a bird’s-eye view of the chimps as they fed, played and socialised.

There were also cinema nights, guided forest walks and other activities for tourists and locals. 

These days, the reserve is scraping by with a trickle of local visitors.

But Kazandjian remains optimistic and they are continuously finding new ways to adapt.

‘Since we’re not getting any foreign guests, we’re focusing on the expat market, encouraging them to visit the sanctuary. We had a yoga retreat, family days, hikes and bird watching, and that does generate a bit of money.

'We’re hosting a fundraiser at one of the hotels in Freetown. It costs about $2,000 per chimp to look after them. If you multiply that by 99 that’s about $200,000 a year just the animal portion of the budget.’  

Crucially, though, Tacugama doesn’t just care for its rescued residents.

They also safeguard the forest that Sierra Leone’s wild apes and other animals call home.

The area is constantly under threat as a result of poaching and plundering the rosewood trees by struggling communities. 

The sanctuary has taken on the additional mission of patrolling the national park.

‘It’s actually the government’s responsibility,’ Kazandjian explained.

‘Historically, they’ve done an appalling job, from corruption to mismanagement of funds to lack of training and equipment for the rangers. So, we’re working alongside the NPAA [National Protected Area Authority] and have also trained and hired 45 eco-guards from the local community to patrol the protected and unprotected areas for illicit activities.

'We’ve continued to pay the rangers’ salaries out of our reserves to keep the patrols going. Working with the communities, especially during the pandemic, we need to keep the momentum going.’ 

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Despite it’s almost-year-long closure, Tacugama has continued its conservation projects, planting 60,000 trees and creating the country’s first wildlife corridor.

‘What this does is restore the wild chimps’ natural habitat. It allows them safe passage and provides a source of food, while minimising human-wildlife conflict in the sense that they don’t need to raid farmers’ crops.’ 

Tacugama also has taken an active role in shaping the national policy, working with the Sierra Leone government to tighten laws on bushmeat hunting and revising the existing 1972 Wildlife Conservation Act, as well as Interpol to crush wildlife trafficking.

 ‘We’re doing a lot of advocacy and education programmes and done a successful job of almost bringing the pet trade to a halt in the country. Yet, despite our efforts, we’re still receiving orphaned infant chimps.’ 

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Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya 

Before the Covid-19 lockdowns, up to 500 tourists used to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi each day, bringing in thousands of dollars in revenue to pay staff and fund anti-poaching patrols.

Founded in 1977 by the Kenyan environmentalist Daphne Sheldrick, the elephant and rhino orphanage rescues victims of poaching and human-wildlife conflict, reintroducing them to the wilds of Kenya. 

Famous in the West thanks to a BBC wildlife series, Elephant Diaries, that followed the late conservationist and the keepers’ work, tourist once flocked to the Nairobi orphanage for the chance to bottle-feed the calves.

‘The past 12 months have been tough,’ said Angela Sheldrick, CEO of her late mother’s charity. 

‘We rely on our public visits to raise vital funds. We’ve also lost the opportunity to connect with new supporters. But I’m extremely proud of how our team has risen to the challenge and humbled by our global supporter base, which has rallied around us during this difficult chapter.

‘The orphans, for their part, seem none the wiser that anything is amiss. Their routine remains unchanged and they continue to enjoy their days exploring Nairobi National Park under the watchful eyes of their beloved keepers.’ 

While the rest of the world is stilled, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service, works across the entire country to protect animals.

‘Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve rescued all sorts of creatures, including zebras, buffalos, elands, oryxes, ostrich and, of course, elephants.’  

Among the recent rescues is an enchanting calf called Rama, found abandoned in Laikipia with a peculiar leg deformity that makes him appear bow-legged.

‘Rama was in a desperate state when he came to us, emaciated and riddled with parasites, but his transformation in a few short weeks has been striking. Now he’s going on long jaunts in the forest with the other orphans and putting on condition fast.’ 

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Milk-dependent for the first three years of their life, orphaned baby elephants require around-the-clock care.

Their human attendants sleep in bunkbeds in the stables with them. 

They need constant comfort and endure long nights of screaming for their lost mothers they witnessed being shot or hacked to death by poachers. 

Many are so traumatized they lose their will to live.

But the calves who recover after losing their families stitch together new ones. With their huge capacity for love and forgiveness, they bond deeply with their nursery companions and human caregivers who bottle-feed them, take them for walks and teach them to forage, put them to bed and soothe them when they cry at night.  

Alongside its rescue-and-rehabilitation work, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs 13 anti-poaching units and five mobile veterinary teams, carrying out water relief for wildlife during droughts, aerial surveillance, canine units and ground patrols for recovering deadly snares across an area that spans 10 million acres, to protect wild lives from harm.  

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Elephants have been persecuted by humans for generations, with the population decimated from 3.5 million in the late-70s to possibly less than 400,000 today.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks to feed the insatiable demand for ivory in China and southeast Asian, steering the species dangerously nearer extinction and Africa towards an unfolding ecological disaster in the process. 

Elephants are essential to the wellbeing of all other species.

‘Elephants are the gardeners of Eden,’ as the late Daphne Sheldrick said in a recent documentary about the orphanage.

‘They push down trees, which recycles nutrients locked in wood for other animals, create trails through the bush, seal the waterholes so they last longer into the dry season, trigger the cycles between the grasslands, which supports the grazing species, and the woodland, which supports the browsing species. Without these magnificent giants, a lot of other animals will go extinct.’ 

Given the current rising threat of the bushmeat crisis and poacher incursions, Daphne Sheldrick's daughter Angela said the charity has added two more anti-poaching teams and another mobile veterinary unit to ensure the wildlife survives and thrives.  

‘Raising orphaned wildlife is futile if they don’t have a protected wilderness to call home, so we take a 360-degree approach to conservation and all our projects are interconnected,’ explained the charity's CEO. 

‘In Kenya, national parks and other protected areas remain safe thanks to extensive anti-poaching initiatives. However, wildlife living outside of protected areas are highly vulnerable. In response to this, we’re looking into ambitious translocation projects to move species great and small from these “danger zones” into protected areas where they have a future. 

‘Without intervention, untold numbers of creatures will lose their lives.’

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To find out more about the charities mentioned, or to donate, see, sheldrickwildlifetrust.org, tacugama.com, harnas.org.

The government says John Magufuli died of heart problems, but questions abound over what really happened to the 61-year-old, who had a doctorate in chemistry and warned against devastating Covid-19 lockdowns in Tanzania.

After spending the last year disputing the global narrative about Covid-19, lockdowns and vaccines, Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli was pronounced dead from a heart attack on March 17 at the age of 61. 

The official announcement came on March 17, when Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan disclosed Magufuli’s death to the nation during a television address.

‘Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today 17 March 2021 around 6pm we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli, who died from heart disease at Mzena hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was getting treatment,’ proclaimed Hassan. 

Hassan said Magufuli had been admitted to the hospital on March 6 but discharged the next day.

A week later, he was taken in again for his heart condition, which Hassan and government authorities have insisted was the cause of his death. 

Magufuli made headlines for defying the global narrative and response to Covid-19 since the virus was found in Tanzania.

He rejected closing churches and businesses, calling on people to pray to God instead of being afraid.

Contrary to the majority of the Western world and other African nations who have seen their economies collapse and other health conditions spiral out of control after embracing Chinese-style lockdowns, Magufuli declined to lock the country down, and the country has not reported any information about Covid-19 to the World Health Organization (WHO) since April 29, 2020.

On that day, 509 cases and 21 deaths were reported.

In June, Magufuli declared that the country had eradicated the virus.

Nor is this the only way that Tanzania’s former president is likely to have angered globalist politicians.

After Covid tests yielded ‘positive’ results from a goat and a pawpaw, Magufuli rejected them as unreliable, saying they had ‘technical errors’. His words have since been supported by an independent group of 22 scientists, who identified ‘10 fatal problems’ with the widely used PCR tests, noting that each problem on its own was enough to render the tests ‘useless’ in identifying Covid-19.

Magufuli, who had a doctorate in chemistry, also warned Tanzanians against becoming ‘guinea pigs’ for the various experimental Covid vaccinations, saying: ‘If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccinations for Aids would have been brought, tuberculosis would be a thing of the past, vaccines for malaria and cancer would have been found.’ 

He was replaced by Hassan, who was sworn in March 19 with her hand on the Koran.

She will serve the remainder of Magufuli’s five-year term, which began in November 2020. 

Magufuli casket. Edited

Mystery surrounding Magufuli’s death

After Magufuli had disappeared from the public eye for a number of days, by March 11 rumours surfaced that he had died.

Then by March 12, the rumours intensified, with a number of social media posts and media reports claiming he had died.

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu claimed that Magufuli was being treated for Covid-19 and flown to Kenya and then to India for treatment.

However, this was ardently denied by government sources.

By March 13, Magufuli was still missing, not having been seen since February 27, and rumours were running amok.

However, on March 12, former Tanzanian intelligence officer and political analyst Evarist Chahali announced that Magufuli was confirmed dead earlier that evening.

Chahali wrote that the president had been put on life support in order to prevent Vice President Hassan from announcing his death and assuming power.

The attempted coup was being orchestrated by a group called ‘Lake Zoners,’ Chahali wrote, which was looking to place General Venance Mabeyo in Magufuli’s place.

The official announcement rejects Chahali’s assertion, however, and the government narrative remains that Magufuli died March 17.

Aside from confusion and secrecy surrounding the date, the leadup to his death was marked by growing international pressure on Magufuli to change his response to Covid-19.

At the start of February, the country’s health minister once again refused to accept any Covid vaccinations, prompting the World Health Organization to increase its pressure on the country to rejoin the fold and take part in the organization’s response to the infection.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a statement urging Tanzania ‘to scale public health measures against Covid-19 and to prepare for vaccination’. 

Describing the situation as ‘concerning’, he reissued his call for Tanzania to take part in the global vaccination rollout, demanding Tanzania implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission’.

Then, just one day after the Director-General’s statement – and in the wake of the death of Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice president of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar region – Magufuli signalled a slight change in policy and commented on the use of masks, and acknowledged the presence of the virus.

‘I have not said people should not wear facemasks, don’t misquote me, however, some facemasks are substandard, if you have to wear them, please consider those locally made,’ he said.

‘Most people who have been affected are in urban areas. We will defeat this virus by faith.’

Magufuli swearing in. Edited

Some days before, on February 8, an article appeared in the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian attacking Magufuli’s response to Covid, calling it ‘a danger to public health’ and calling for Magufuli to be reined in.

The op-ed claimed that the president was ‘fuelling denialism and conspiracies’, and ridiculed his rejection of lockdowns and mask wearing. 

The article was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which invests and makes billions of dollars on the global vaccination drive. The Foundation, along with the WHO, has been accused of profiting from DTP vaccines in Africa, which some scientific studies have alleged led to more deaths than the diseases they are supposed to protect against: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). 

In an attempt to curry favour with the liberal movement, Melinda Gates proclaimed last June that the experimental Covid-19 vaccines should be given first to ‘black people’ and ‘indigenous people’ in America. 

Certainly, in the run-up to his death, Magufuli faced the renewed wrath of both Bill Gates and the WHO, who took issue with his rejection of their lockdown and vaccination measures.

It remains to be seen what further details will emerge to shed light upon Magufuli’s death after he disappeared from public view for 18 days before he was announced to have died at just 61.

His successor, Hassan, praised Magufuli in her swearing-in ceremony and called for unity and an end to ‘finger pointing’.

Hassan, who previously worked for the United Nations’ World Food Program, was warmly welcomed to her new role by the WHO Director-General, in a marked change of tone from his previous comments to Magufuli, saying: 'I look forward to working with you to keep people safe from #COVID19, end the pandemic and achieve a healthier Tanzania. Together!’

This article was originally published on LifeSiteNews.com and has been edited for NewsAfrica Magazine.

They famously helped clear former warzones of landmines. But, as Britt Collins reports, Africa’s sniffer rats could soon be the latest recruits in the fight against both illegal wildlife trafficking and Covid-19.

An elite squad of sniffer troops are hard at work, scurrying through boxes scattered around a field in Tanzania’s southern highlands. APOPO, the Morogoro-based non-profit that pioneered using African giant pouched rats to find landmines, is teaching the rodents to detect the smell of pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products as part of Africa’s never-ending battle against international smugglers. 

Known for sniffing out buried explosives with great success, these forest-dwelling rodents, whose sense of smell rivals that of bloodhounds, could soon turn their mighty noses to protecting other animals being smuggled out of Africa for the illegal wildlife markets of Asia. 

Unlike sniffer dogs, the rats, which are only three-foot long from nose to tail, can squeeze into tight, hard-to-reach spaces and scramble up shipping containers and through cargo stuffed with poached pangolins or other illicit animal body parts. 

Blessed with super-sensitive nostrils to relocate squirreled-away food and navigate burrows through the dark, the nocturnal mammals are able to sniff out pangolin scales, which smugglers often hide beneath other strong-smelling products, such as coffee or spices, to throw customs officers off the scent.  

‘Rats are extremely intelligent and quick to learn. So far, our rats have been trained to detect pangolin scales and an endangered ebony wood, which is illegally logged in Madagascar,’ said Dr Cindy Fast, APOPO’s head of training and behavioural research.  

‘Dogs have been doing this type of work for decades, but they’re quite expensive and struggle in the hot and dry climate in Africa.’

The docile animals, sometimes known as Gambian pouched rats, are easy to train and transport between locations, resistant to many tropical diseases and well-adapted to the environments they work in. 

Cindy Fast and sniffer rat

Life savers

APOPO’s ‘HeroRATs’, so named because of their life-saving work clearing landmines, are remarkably effective. Magawa, the charity’s most successful mine-sniffer, recently made international headlines for receiving the PDSA animal charity’s Gold Medal for bravery. The seven-year rodent has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 munitions in Cambodia since he was trained by the charity.  

Over 20 years, Africa’s sniffer rats have unearthed more than 108,000 landmines, remnants of war buried in the earth in some of the world’s deadliest post-conflict zones.

According to APOPO, one rat is capable of searching a field the size of a tennis court in 20 minutes, which could take a human de-miner, who must rely on metal detectors that send constant false alarms, as much as four days. Magawa’s bomb-detecting colleagues are still working tirelessly all over the world to protect people from deadly landmines.

They were recently tasked with clearing minefields inside the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor, the largest conservation area in the world spanning Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. This saved the lives of not only the local populations and livestock but also elephants and other wildlife that migrate between the region’s economically important reserves and parks. 

Hidden heroes

Hand-raised by humans from infancy, the mega rodents are trained to paw the ground when they smell TNT and are given a treat for every successful landmine detected.

They work for their favourite snacks, including bananas, peanuts, sun-dried sardines and avocados.

Too small to set off the landmines, to date no animals have lost their lives in the line of duty.  

Many people assume that rats are used for these dangerous missions because they’re inexpensive and considered expendable by researchers.

But APOPO was founded by an animal-loving humanitarian and its rats are treated as the heroes they are, and given celebrity names, such as Bowie, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Jane Goodall and Maya Angelou. 

Bart Weetjens, a Dutch industrial engineer, came up with the idea in 1995 when he was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem.

As a kid growing up in Antwerp, Belgium, he kept rats as pets and knew how smart, social and trainable they were.  

When Weetjens came across an article about the use of gerbils for scent detection, he wondered if rats could be taught to recognise the chemical compound of explosives.

He consulted Professor Ron Verhagen, a rodent expert at the University of Antwerp who had worked in Africa for many years, and he recommended African giant pouched rats for the job.

During his time in Tanzania, Verhagen had even seen a villager walk one on a lead.

These critters, natives to the sub-Saharan region, were already adapted to the environmental conditions most in need of mine-clearance support, which at the time were Mozambique and Angola. 

Crime solvers

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a conservation organisation based in South Africa, works collaboratively with APOPO on the wildlife-scent detection project.  

‘Having seen APOPO’s amazing work using African pouched rats in other settings, we thought that success could be extended to help fight against wildlife crime,’ said Ashleigh Dore, EWT’s project manager.

‘We originally sourced funding from US Fish and Wildlife Service’s ‘Combating Wildlife Trafficking Program’ and then the UK government through the ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund’ to test whether the rats could detect wildlife specimens. 

The project, currently funded by Wildlife Conservation Network, is truly ground-breaking.’ 

APOPO is training a squad of pouched rats, nine seasoned sleuths and eight newcomers, for wildlife-scent detection.

‘We’ve just started exploring, but have a lot of evidence suggesting our rats can quickly learn new scent targets while remembering those they’ve already learned,’ explained Fast. 

‘The rat moves into the training area, a mock shipping environment, where boxes have been placed.

'Some have been loaded with the target scent hidden inside, while most boxes contain non-target ‘dummy’ scents.

‘The rats have generalised well to scales collected from more than one pangolin. We haven’t trained or tested them with live pangolins or other pangolin products yet.’

One of the difficulties has been access to pangolin parts for training.

Scales are tightly regulated and it has been challenging to acquire samples from all four African species of pangolin.

‘Whether or not the different species smell noticeably different to the rat is a question we intend to answer in the future,’ Fast added.

‘With the promising results we’ve gathered so far, we hope to begin field training and tests next year.’ 

After successful training, the super-sniffer detectives will be deployed at airports, national parks, seaports and borders, initially in Tanzania, to scour shipments of pangolins.

Wildlife trafficking has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic and pangolins, whose scales are used in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’ for a variety of unproven treatments, are in a constant state of crisis.  

Demand for the scales of the shy, nocturnal animals, which look like scaly armadillos but are actually related to bears and dogs, now exceeds that for elephant tusks or rhino horns.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that a pangolin is taken from the wild every five minutes, which equates to the loss of more than one million animals in the last decade, pushing all eight species toward extinction.   

The team of pangolin-sniffing rats could soon be patrolling ports and borders.

‘Our goal is to train and test the rats within a real seaport environment next year,’ said Fast.  

Trainer rat

Backpacking rats

In a series of training stages that increasingly resemble real-world conditions, the rats are fitted with backpacks that hold a tiny video camera and small beeper, to which they quickly became accustomed to wearing.

‘They have all been trained to trigger a microswitch by pulling a small ball attached to their harness when they detect the target scent,’ Fast explained.

This makes it possible for the rat to alert the handler when it has found something, even if the handler is out of view.’

Someday these unlikely heroes could be trained to search for other widely trafficked wildlife contraband, such as lion bones, rhino horns and elephant tusks.  

Disease detectors

But it’s not just other animals the rats are helping save.

They are also being used to detect tuberculous (TB) in humans and could soon be used to sniff out Covid-19. 

APOPO recently received a $725,000 grant from the Belgian government to train rats to detect Covid-19 in the Mozambican cities of Maputo, Matola and Marracuene.

The scheme, which is being run in partnership with the Mozambican National Health institute (INS) and the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo hopes to replicate the rats’ incredible work in detecting cases of TB. 

APOPO’s rats have already proved one of the best tools that scientists have in detecting early cases of the infectious disease, which kills 1.4 million people a year.  

The rodents can sniff more saliva samples for TB in 10 minutes than a lab technician can analyse in a day.

They’ve proved so successful in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia, where they’ve been used, that they’ve increased detection rates by 40 per cent, identifying 20,000 cases that would otherwise have been missed, and preventing the onward transmission to an estimated 160,000 more people.  

Worthy investment

Rats don’t come cheap. It costs around $7,000 to train each of the charity’s 300 rats, and takes around nine months before they are ready to be deployed around the world.

The rats are also shipped to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to detect landmines there. 

Unlike dogs, which are notoriously tricky to train, most African pouched rats graduate from scent-detection school with flying colours.

‘They’re truly a pleasure to work with. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get a sweet lick or two,’ said Fast, who spent a decade studying animal cognition with all sorts of animals, like horses, pigeons and hermit crabs.

She has a soft spot for rats and even adopted a few.

‘They’re fun, sociable and inquisitive creatures, so it’s hard not to develop bonds with them. Knowing the rats will be well-cared for in new homes and saving lives makes it easier to say goodbye when they graduate from training.’ 

Fast recalled visiting the minefields in Cambodia, witnessing a recently graduated rat as it successfully discovered explosives.

‘When the de-miner moved in, it was confirmed that there was an unexploded ordinance buried in the ground a few feet where I was standing. It gave me chills, but I felt like a proud parent.’  

Sniffer rat

Working conditions

The sniffer rats only work mornings, as its too hot to work midday.

Like everyone else, they have weekends off, chilling out in the playpens with their rodent friends and hanging out with their handlers.  

After five or six years, or once they’re no longer keen to work, the rats, who can live up to nine years in captivity, spend their golden years in large enclosures, furnished with clay nesting pots, climbing ropes, running wheels and tunnels.

The retired rats get fresh locally sourced produce, weekly vet inspections and continued socialisation with the animal-welfare team members. 

Such thoughtfulness underscores every aspect of their lives until the end.

‘We began the tradition of burying the HeroRATs that passed away in the early days,’ explained Fast.

‘Our staff in different countries have different cultures, and they each honour the animals that have passed in their own way. In Tanzania, our staff will sing a song or two, while in Cambodia they hand-build wooden grave markers and take a moment of silence.’

Friends, not foes

Few mammals are so reviled and persecuted as rats – which are seen as being dirty, diseased, invasive.

But rats are increasingly being used around the world for jobs previously carried out by dogs and scientists. 

In the Netherlands, for example, police forensics teams use common brown rats to find gunpower residue to solve crimes.

Several animal-therapy and assistance programmes for autistic kids, elderly and disabled people in the United States have traded in their companion dogs for domesticated rats. 

Many other jobs that are currently done by dogs, such as drug enforcement, border patrol, rescue missions to sniff out victims of earthquakes and cadaver searches, could be done by the rodents in the near future.  

Rats may be known as vermin, and considered expendable in most parts of the world – up to 100 million rats and mice a year are killed in American lab experiments alone.

But from detecting landmines to Covid-19, APOPO is just scratching the surface of the extraordinary things these much-maligned creatures can do.

To sponsor a life-saving rat for around $12.50 a month, see apopo.org.

It’s the airborne delivery service that’s transformed healthcare provision in Ghana and Rwanda.

While many people might think companies like Amazon will be the first to start with drone delivery services, few realize the technology has already been in use in Africa for several years - and for a far greater purpose.

Medical start-up Zipline has been using drones to deliver life-saving medicineand blood transfusions in Rwanda for four years and in Ghana for nearly two years.

And the US company is set to expand its drone-delivery service to Kaduna in Nigeria. 

The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from three distribution centres – each equipped with 30 drones – and will deliver to more than 1,000 health facilities serving millions of people across the populous Nigerian state. 

The Silicon Valley-based logistics company has also started to play a growing role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ghana, Zipline began delivering Covid-19 test samples collected from patients in more than 1,000 rural health facilities to labs in the country’s two largest cities, Accra and Kumasi.

The service allowed the government to monitor and respond to the spread of the disease in some of the country’s most remote and difficult-to-reach areas, and reduced testing time from days to hours in some cases. 

In Rwanda, Zipline worked with global health non-profit organisation Partners In Health to ensure that quarantined cancer patients, who were unable to travel to the hospital for care and consultation, could continue to receive their chemotherapy treatments during the height of lockdown. 

Meanwhile, in the US, Zipline launched the first long-distance emergency drone logistics operation for hospital pandemic response, transporting deliveries of personal protective equipment to frontline medical teams in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Recently, the start-up announced a partnership with a major manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines to build an end-to-end distribution system that will see the company distribute the vaccines in the countries where it operates.

‘Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo.

The drone company wants to help rural areas that have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

‘We can help health systems bypass infrastructure and supply chain challenges through instant delivery.’ 

The Covid-19 vaccine delivery service should help health facilities avoid the need for ultra-low-temperature freezers by receiving on-demand deliveries of the precise number of vaccines they require at any time, safely and compliantly within the required temperature profile.

‘We will build ultra-low freezers at all of our distribution centres. And we are developing special packaging that will help maintain safe temperatures in flight to allow the vaccine to be used within five hours,’ Justin Hamilton, Head of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Zipline, told NewsAfrica.

Zipline declined to specify its vaccine partner but said it has built a system that can deliver ‘all leading Covid-19 vaccines.’ 

It was initially thought that the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored in extreme cold temperatures of -70C, requiring special freezers. 

But recently, both companies announced that tests have shown that their coronavirus vaccine can withstand warmer temperatures, between -25C to -15C, which are at levels commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators. 

vaccine.jpg

‘This is good news for the world,’ Zipline’s Head of Communications said.

‘But we want to be in a position to deliver all vaccines at any temperature. They will still be a scarce commodity that needs to be distributed efficiently and effectively.’ 

A Pfizer spokeswoman said it supports Zipline’s efforts to expand access to vaccines and medicines to those in hard-to-reach geographies.

‘We share Zipline’s commitment to innovative solutions to ensure equity in the distribution of vaccines and medicines, she said, though she declined to specifically confirm a deal had been signed with Zipline.

Zipline expects to be ready to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in all the markets where it operates from next month.

The company’s fixed-wing, battery-powered drones navigate by GPS.

The unmanned aircrafts are able to carry 1.6 kg of medical supplies – about the weight of three pints of blood.

Through a very cleverly designed catapult-type system, the drone plane is accelerated to a 100km per hour (60mph) cruising speed in only 0.3 seconds. 

As take-off and landing are the most difficult stages of a flight, the drones don’t land on the designation but simply drop the supplies in an insulated cardboard box with a simple parachute, which afterwards can be thrown away.

Thanks to this system, clinics don’t need any infrastructure to sign up as a client or a distribution centre. 

Each aircraft can fly 160km (100 mile) roundtrip, in strong winds and rain, day or night, to make on-demand deliveries in 30 to 45 minutes on average.

A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to 20,000 square kilometres – or just under 8,000 square miles

Zipline says its drones have flown more than six million kilometres(3.5 million miles) and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the last five years.

In Rwanda, the company’s drones transported a staggering 20 per cent of all the blood used in transfusions outside of Kigali, leading Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo, to describe the East African nation as a ‘role model’ for how the rest of the world’s health care systems may one day work.

Leading scientists in South Africa believe the country may have accidentally established herd immunity to Covid-19.

The announcement by the country's leading vaccinologist, Professor Shabir Mahdi, follows an unexpected drop in the number of infections after a major outbreak in June and July.

Commenting on a series of studies that revealed the existence of high antibody rates in the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces, Professor Mahdi told Sky News that he believed the coronavirus had stimulated a level of immunity in approximately 12 to 15 million South Africans.

The findings support NewsAfrica’s investigations last month into the unexpected drop in infections across much of the continent, including South Africa.

‘The only way to explain it, the only plausible way to explain it is that some sort of herd immunity has been reached,’ said Professor Mahdi of South Africa’s plateauing cases.

South Africa was ranked as the world's fifth most-affected country at the height of its pandemic, behind only the US, India, Brazil and Russia - all of which have much larger populations.

A study in Gauteng, which is home to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, revealed that approximately one in three people tested had some form of antibodies.

An earlier study in Cape Town had posted even higher levels of infection, with 40 per cent of respondents testing positive for antibodies.

South African researchers believe that the country's strict lockdown – imposed in March – inadvertently kickstarted a massive wave of infection in the country, as people massed in shops, spreading the virus, before the lockdown began.

Across the country, people were forced to queue for essentials like food and social security payments, creating what the virologist Dr Marvin Hsiao described as ‘new networks for the spread of the disease’.

He added: ‘When we analysed the data it become clear, this immunity within the population level linked to the big surge in infections is probably the main reason why we've seen the [recent] decrease of numbers infected.’

Paradoxically, President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced to deny rumours the government is considering tightening Covid-19 last month.

Speaking to Sky News, Professor Mahdi dismissed the notion of a second national lockdown, saying: ‘Under no circumstances is a lockdown on its own going to achieve elimination of the virus.’

South Africans donated billions of dollars to protect key workers. But with bank accounts frozen and sports cars seized, questions are being raised about where the money went. 

What started as a rallying call for South Africans to stand together against the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, quickly disintegrated into a morass of bureaucratic bungling, corruption and outright looting involving multi-million-dollar tenders allegedly awarded to politically connected individuals tasked with supplying personal protection equipment (PPE). 

In March, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

He called on the people to be resolute and firm and to support the government’s decision to declare a national state of disaster, and lockdown the country for three weeks.

He also announced the creation of the Solidarity Fund – with an initial R150 million ($8.7m) from the state – to deal with the coming Covid-19 storm.

The speech, delivered with gravitas and frankness, shifted even his most fervent detractors, and the money poured in.

The families and businesses of the Oppenheimers, the Ruperts and the Motsepes immediately committed R1 billion ($58m) each.

Online internet giant Naspers kicked in R1.5 billion ($87.5m). Two-thirds of the cash was used to source, procure and distribute PPE and the remaining third paid directly into the fund.

Within weeks, the fund had attracted $30bn, and within six months some $142m had been disbursed on what the fund listed as ‘interventions and projects across three key pillars – Health, Humanitarian Relief and Behavioural Change’ – with huge sums spent to provide PPE for frontline health workers.

As the country moved into ever-decreasing alert levels, the regulations surrounding the lockdown became submerged in illogic and nonsense.

Retailers could sell T-shirts, but only if they were to be worn under a jacket; they could not sell open-toed sandals; the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition even placed absurd restrictions on e-commerce shopping.

There were rumours of fierce battles within the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), headed by Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. 

The mood of the country shifted from determination and support to anger and disillusionment.

Then stories began to trickle in about the PPE contracts.

In April, the province of Gauteng’s Health Department’s Supply Chain Chief Director, Thandy Pino – just two weeks into her position – apparently warned her department head, Mkhululi Lukhele, and the Chief Financial Officer, Kabelo Lehloenya, that the department wasn’t complying with National Treasury procurement guidelines for Covid-19 PPE.

The amount involved was around R2bn ($116m).

A month later, Lehloenya resigned, and Pino was suspended while the SIU investigates her role in the tender awards. 

But the alarm bells went off in July when presidential spokesperson and confidant Khusela Diko was placed on leave following revelations that her husband, king of the amaBhaca people Thandisizwe Diko, had secured a $2.75m PPE contract.

By the end of July, the deal – which Diko withdrew from – along with more than 90 other tenders issued by Gauteng’s Department of Health, was being investigated by a nine-institution unit headed by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

The SIU was set up by the President on July 23 to deal with allegations of PPE corruption.

The probe into Khusela Diko, which includes the Gauteng health minister, Dr Bandile Masuku, and his wife, councillor Loyiso Masuku, has yet to be resolved, despite a marathon two-day hearing held mid-September. 

Questions really began to be raised, though, when a young businessman by the name of Hamilton Ndlovu posted a video showing him taking delivery of five luxury vehicles – three Porsches, a Jeep and a Lamborghini Urus SUV – worth roughly $645,000.

Ndlovu, who runs an ‘engineering solutions’ company, reportedly secured a $7.3m PPE contract in the Eastern Cape province.

At the time of going to press, Ndlovu’s bank accounts had been frozen and three of the cars seized pending an investigation. 

By mid-September, the SIU was investigating more than 658 PPE tenders and other pandemic-related contracts worth around $300m.

Meanwhile, Brig Hangwani Mulaudzi, spokesperson for South Africa’s elite anti-corruption unit the Hawks, confirmed officers were investigating more than 50 cases regarding substandard or falsified PPE.

This investigation followed on reports from the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), which revealed that approximately 60 per cent of the medical-grade masks it tested did not meet its quality criteria. 

Ironically, the Hawks are also involved in investigating themselves after it came to light that four contracts worth $31.6m to supply the police with PPE were under investigation. 

The rot seems to be widespread. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the SIU is looking into the Department of Education and the Department of Social Development’s PPE contracts respectively valued at $28m and $1.25m. 

According to a report issued by the Auditor-General, Kimi Makwetu, the items were ‘priced at more than double, or even five times, the prescribed price’.

It goes on to say: ‘There are clear signs of overpricing, unfair processes, potential fraud and supply chain management legislation being sidestepped’.

The Auditor-General’s final report is expected in November.

It will be his swan song, as his seven-year term of office comes to an end. 

There was no lockdown, no recession, and just 21 official deaths in Tanzania – which goes to the polls this month. But with the country’s main trading partners reeling from lockdown-induced job losses, Zachary Ochieng asks whether economic contagion might be the real threat. 

When the world went in to lockdown, Tanzanians went to church.

They were told to by their president, John Magufuli, who implored citizens to flock to churches and mosques to vanquish the ‘satanic’ virus.

Covid-19, insisted the devout Catholic, was nothing to be ‘afraid’ of, adding that the economy was ‘more important than the threat posed by coronavirus’.

So, while Tanzania’s neighbour Kenya introduced curfews, restricted travel, banned all gatherings, and closed all restaurants, bars and schools, life in East Africa’s second largest economy continued almost unchanged.

Schools and airports were briefly closed, and large, secular gatherings banned, but throughout the pandemic, Tanzanians have continued to go to work, travel on public transport, and shop, drink and eat in public pretty much as normal. 

It was a bold move on Magufuli’s part, especially with presidential elections slated for October 28 – but not an entirely novel one, prayer vigils aside. 

Tanzania’s pandemic response loosely mirrored that of Sweden, which did not shut down its economy, hoping that social distancing, home-working, and bans on large gatherings would mitigate the coronavirus’s spread and lead to some form of herd immunity being developed.

But while Sweden has emerged with fewer deaths than many European countries that locked down, including the UK, Spain and Belgium, Covid’s true toll in Tanzania is less clear.

At the height of the pandemic, videos of alleged secret night burials went viral on social media, leading to allegations of a cover-up by the Magufuli regime.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, claimed that the number of infections was as much as seven times higher than the official figure, which would have placed Tanzania among sub-Saharan Africa’s most affected countries at the time.

The government, through its chief spokesman Hassan Abbas, however, dismissed the night burial allegations as ‘nonsensical’.

Meanwhile, the unexplained deaths of three MPs who presented with symptoms, and the authorities’ subsequent decision to fine or close down media outlets that linked the legislators’ deaths to Covid-19, was seized on by Magufuli’s critics as proof that more than 21 people died with the virus. 

The president similarly trashed a US embassy warning that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients at the start of the pandemic, and instead claimed the rate of infections had been exaggerated and those who were found to have contracted the virus were actually false positives. (The government claimed to have secretly tested a papaya, a goat and a quail for Covid-19, with all results returning positive for the virus.) 

Whether Covid-19 has been eliminated in Tanzania, as the government insists, remains a subject of debate.

The possibility that Tanzania has developed some form of herd immunity after only a few months of spiking cases has been bandied around by some government insiders.

But with most of the Covid-19 testing centres now shut down, and people no longer going for tests, it is very difficult to assess the true Covid-19 situation in Tanzania.

A NewsAfrica insider – with access to Tanzania's ICU departments – reported that ICUs were indeed largely deserted when they visited hospitals recently.

And with ‘official’ death tolls across Africa way below that of Europe and the Americas – thanks in part to the continent’s youthfulness, but perhaps, also, undercounting across the board – Tanzania’s 21 deaths, from a country of 55 million, is not as unusual as it sounds.

Burundi, for instance, is claiming just one official death from Covid-19, despite their president allegedly dying with it.

Nigeria is claiming just over 1,100 deaths in a country of nearly 0.2 billion.

And Tanzania’s neighbours Uganda and Kenya have posted official death tolls of just 79 and 731 respectively, despite having large populations like Tanzania, and, in the case of Kenya, relatively high antibody levels, meaning the virus must have circulated widely despite the lockdown.

But as debates rage about Tanzania’s unconventional response to the pandemic, and whether its true death toll may be closer to Kenya’s, there are signs that Tanzania’s economy, at least, might not be as adversely affected as its lockdown-embracing neighbours.

Projections by the African Development Bank predict, for instance, that Tanzania’s economy will grow by five per cent this year, making it the best performing economy in the East African Community. 

‘The country’s decision to keep the economy open has offered a major relief to the private sector,’ said the East African Business Council’s executive director Peter Mathuki. 

Kenya, on the other hand, has seen more than 1.7 million people lose their jobs during the pandemic, with millions pushed into extreme poverty.

Only 47 per cent of Kenyans still have some form of regular income, according to research company FSD Kenya, while a worrying 17 per cent of Kenyans are now unable to meet basic living standards. 

The situation in Uganda, which had one of the harshest lockdowns on earth, is equally grim.

A report by the Development Initiatives in August estimated that ‘about 23 per cent of the urban poor could have lost 100 per cent of their daily income during and after the lockdown’, and concluded that ‘the socioeconomic consequences of [containing] Covid-19 currently outweigh the positive health impact of limiting its spread.’ 

But while Magufuli’s approach may have spared the country from the sort of mass unemployment seen elsewhere thus far – a big vote winner under normal circumstances – there have been rumblings about his laissez faire economic approach. 

Unlike Kenya, whose government injected an economic stimulus package to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Tanzania did little to support businesses impacted by Covid-19, particularly those in the hard-hit tourism sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of foreign exchange earnings. 

Tanzania’s lucrative mineral sector has also been badly damaged by the global economic downtown and disruptions to international supply chains. 

On the other hand, the agricultural sector, which contributed 27 per cent of Tanzania’s GDP in 2019 and employed about 67 per cent of the total workforce, has remained largely unaffected by the pandemic so far, with agricultural growth expected to decline slightly from an average of five per cent in 2019 to a still-healthy three per cent growth this year, according to a May 2020 report by Deloitte.

The levelling off has been blamed on a locust infestation that destroyed crops near Mt Kilimanjaro, coupled with decreased demand for export-focused cash crops, such as coffee, in lockdown-hit Europe and Asia.

In fact, there are signs that the global downturn might store up future problems for Tanzania, with the report warning that ‘the sector’s jobs remain in the balance,’ unless the export of key cash crops picks up again.

Meanwhile, the World Bank warned in June that growth slowdown in Tanzania’s main trading partners would lead to an increase in poverty in Tanzania too by default. 

It warned that an economic slowdown in Europe, Asia and other major trading partners had reduced demand and prices for Tanzania’s agricultural commodities and manufactured goods, and added that international travel bans and fear of contracting the virus are expected to inhibit the recovery of tourism, which had been one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy before the pandemic.

‘Tanzania’s macroeconomic performance has been strong for the last decade, but the current crisis is an unprecedented shock that requires a sustained, targeted policy response’, the report added. 

It concluded that the volume of exports will shrink by around 10 per cent, as disruption pushes up the costs of imports and transportation, while the hit to tourism, export-oriented manufacturing and related services had already shrunk the disposable income of employees in those sectors and thus affected owners of small- and medium-sized businesses, which represent more than 70 per cent of total businesses. 

In short, the report implied that the decision by almost every other country in the world to lockdown is expected to lead to a global downturn that will act like a contagion, dragging down livelihoods and jobs in countries that didn’t lockdown, including Tanzania and export-reliant Sweden. 

But with tourism already recovering – despite critics claiming the rumours of unreported cases would dissuade tourists from returning to Tanzania’s beaches and game reserves – might talk of an impending economic downturn by contagion or otherwise be overblown? 

The International Growth Centre gave some credence to Magufuli’s economy-first approach, predicting the economic shock would be slightly lower in countries that didn’t lock down, and argued that governments in developing countries could not respond to Covid-19 as solely a health crisis, given the economic and political crises that had also emerged.

Whether Tanzanians at risk of losing their jobs will blame Magufuli for not offering more financial support, or foreign governments for causing a global downturn, remains to be seen.

But with a divided opposition, and the economy still largely intact, the president’s prayers, at least, look set to be answered on election day. 

NewsAfrica cuts through the media hysteria and gets the lowdown on lockdowns, Covid-19 antibody tests and herd immunity in this Q&A with Professor Sunetra Gupta, a world-leading expert in theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

 

Q: Why are infections and hospitalisations falling across much of Africa when lockdown measures are being eased, or, in the case of Tanzania, never imposed at all?

A: It’s hard to think of any other explanation than the build-up of population-level immunity, also known as ‘herd immunity’. Social distancing may accelerate the decline.

 

Q: What percentage of the population needs to be infected for herd immunity to kick in?

A: This depends on how many people were resistant to the virus to start with.

Several studies suggest that previous exposure to seasonal coronaviruses [such as common colds] confer a degree of protection, and this can bring down the percentage that needs to be infected quite considerably, such that antibody levels of 15-20 per cent may be sufficient to reach what is known as the herd immunity threshold.

 

Q: Will exposure to the virus show up in antibody tests?

A: Antibody tests are highly variable in their specificity and sensitivity.

We now know that not everybody who is exposed makes antibodies, and also that they decay quite quickly.

This makes it difficult to interpret the results [of antibody studies].

There are, of course, reports of 40-50 per cent or even 70 per cent antibody positivity in certain populations which suggests that they were recently infected and have probably overshot the herd immunity threshold.

 

Q: Why do governments not test for the full range of antibodies, such as IgA antibodies and T-Cells?

A: It’s very difficult and expensive to test for T-cells.

IgA tests in saliva are being trialled.

 

Q: Given that studies found 12.3 per cent of people in Blantyre, Malawi, had IgG and IgM antibodies alone, what percentage of Malawians are likely to have had the virus and be protected by IgA antibodies and T-cells too?

A: I think most of these numbers have gone up since the study was conducted, but I imagine that we should expect similar levels of antibodies as Stockholm [where infections have slowed through some degree of herd immunity].

 

Q: How realistic was the concept of ‘social distancing’ for Africa, given its mega-cities and slums?

A: I think it’s totally unrealistic and can have devastating consequences for society [poverty, hunger etc], as we have clearly seen.

 

Q: Why have Africa’s health systems been able to cope better with the pandemic than rich nations, such as the UK, Italy and Belgium?

A: Part of it is down to the age structure.

We know that the risks are very low in people under the age of 65.

It could also be that exposure to other pathogens, especially other coronaviruses, is higher in Africa.

 

Q: Is talk of a second wave just media hysteria?

A: Lifting of lockdown in areas where the virus has not spread can of course result in a rise in infections.

Hopefully we will not see this in Africa.

Many pathogens exhibit seasonal increases over the winter months, this may be what is happening now in the UK, so it is likely that cases will rise again next winter in South Africa and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, but this is just normal behaviour for a respiratory pathogen.

In a few years, we may get another real, wave due to the loss of immunity, as we see with other coronaviruses, but hopefully this will not cause a lot of excess mortality as you are often protected against severe disease and death in your second infection.

 

With early antibody tests revealing the virus may have infected millions more Africans than first thought, Andrea Dijkstra speaks to some of the world’s leading experts and asks whether the fall in hospitalisations and deaths may mean herd immunity is well within reach. 

Early this year, experts estimated that the African continent would be especially hard hit by the pandemic, with high rates of transmission that could quickly overwhelm health care systems.

‘Between 300,000 and 3.3 million African people could die as a direct result of Covid-19,’ the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) predicted in April.

The organisation emphasised that sub-Saharan Africa would be particularly susceptible because 56 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in overcrowded and poorly serviced slum dwellings, and only 34 per cent of the households have access to basic hand-washing facilities.

‘When I heard that corona reached Kenya, I feared the worst,’ recalled ICU-nurse Francisca Mumbua, who works at the Covid-19 isolation facility of Machakos Referral Hospital in central Kenya.

‘On the TV, we saw people dying in large numbers in western countries like Italy. I thought that our continent would be hard hit with masses losing their lives, as most of our countries are poor and our healthcare systems are limited. We basically expected to be really overwhelmed.’ 

Nine months later, and Africa seems to have weathered the pandemic relatively well so far, with just one confirmed case for every thousand people and a little over 35,000 deaths – 3.5 per cent of the global total.

Even South Africa, the hardest-hit country on the continent, has seen a relatively ‘low’ number of deaths, with about 28 fatalities per 100,000 population, compared to 61 deaths per 100,000 in the United States, for example.

‘To our surprise, most of the people who suffered from Covid-19 had a very mild or asymptomatic form of the disease,’ said nurse Francisca Mumbea.

‘Other moderate cases were managed successfully despite the resource challenges faced by most of the African countries.’ 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 80 per cent of coronavirus cases in African countries were asymptomatic versus around 40 per cent in Europe.

‘There are simply not so many people in Africa dying from this virus as we see in, for example, Europe’, said Professor Yap Boum, an epidemiologist and microbiologist with Epicenter Africa, the research arm of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). 

Africa’s youthful demographics are definitely an important reason for the lower death rates, according to most experts.

The median population age in Africa is 19.7 versus 38.6 years in the US and 42.6 in Europe.

In Kenya, for example, half of the population is younger than 20, and only four per cent are 60 or above.

Meanwhile, in Italy, 29 per cent of people are aged 60 or over while only 18 per cent are aged under 20. 

Another difference is that coronavirus has also predominantly affected cities, which in Africa are home to younger people.

‘When people retire, they often go back to the village,’ explained Boum, who believed that this natural separation between generations might have helped to curb the virus in some African states. 

However, demographics cannot get all the credit for the continent’s successes. Africa’s youthfulness should have resulted in death rates being four times lower than Europe or the United States, according to a recent study called ‘Covid-19 in Africa: Dampening the storm?’.

The death rate is actually around 40 times lower than Europe and the US. 

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According to the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa, a difference in genetics between Caucasians and people of African descent could explain the discrepancy.

‘We could have some differences in some of the genes that are associated with either the expression of receptors that the virus uses to enter our cells, or genes associated with an immune response against the virus thereby giving us a better protective response,’ stated the scientist from the University of Nairobi.

In the United States, however, African-Americans were especially hard hit by the virus and accounted for a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths.

This apparent discrepancy might be explained away by recent research from the Boston University School of Medicine, which discovered that patients living in predominantly African-American and Hispanic areas were more likely to be vitamin-D deficient, which put them at a higher risk of acquiring the infection. 

A growing number of experts also believe that another important factor is the types of pathogens – or viruses – that people are exposed to, which are often connected to the climate and the levels of hygiene.

‘One good example is malaria that you don’t find in Europe and the United States. In sub-Saharan Africa we are permanently exposed to malaria, typhoid, as well as other coronaviruses, which at some point might build our immunity,’ explained epidemiologist Yap Boum.

‘This might make us more equipped to respond to this new Covid-19 virus. And while people in Europe and the United States also have the flu and quite a number of viruses, many people live in more hygienic environments where they are less exposed to those pathogens.’

Such a view isn’t universally popular. Professor Salim Abdool Karim – widely seen as a leading voice on the pandemic response in South Africa – pointed to other areas of the world with similarly crowded slums that have been hard hit by Covid-19. ‘If this was the case, then why do we see such severe cases in India and Brazil?’ 

Potential underreporting of Covid-19–associated deaths has also been bandied around. However, to date, African countries have not reported acute health emergencies.

‘We haven’t really surveyed all deaths to determine whether or not there was possible Covid-involvement,’ said the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa, ‘although we haven’t had many unexplained deaths.’ 

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The WHO acknowledged that coronavirus deaths might be under-reported in the continent but didn’t suspect a huge gap.

‘Although cases are being missed,’ WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a virtual media briefing recently.

‘We are not seeing evidence of excess mortality due to Covid-19 or missing deaths.’ 

Crucially, small antibody surveys suggest far more Africans might have already been infected with the coronavirus than official infection rates suggest, which makes the lower death rates even more striking.

Immunologists from the Wellcome Trust Research Programme at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Kilifi, for example, tested 3,174 blood donors from around the country between the end of April and the middle of June, and found that 5.6 per cent of all the donors and 9.5 per cent of those based in Nairobi had Covid-19 antibodies  –  proteins the body makes when the infection occurs.

‘The results suggest [that] about one in 20 people aged 15-64 years have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, which is in sharp contrast with the very small numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths reported during the same period,’ wrote the authors of the paper, which has not yet gone through peer review and was published as a pre-print in July. 

If the survey’s results accurately reflected Kenya’s overall infection rate, then 2.5 million Kenyans would have had coronavirus in that period.

Such a high number of infections should have resulted in around 12,500 deaths using the World Health Organization’s conservative estimate of a 0.5 per cent morbidity rate. And yet, by midway through the survey, Kenya had only reported 71 deaths from coronavirus - far lower than the number of deaths reported globally in countries with similar levels of antibodies. Even by the end of September the country had reported only 700 deaths from Covid-19.

Other antibody studies in Africa have shown similarly surprising findings.

Two recent surveys done by the National Health Institute in Mozambique on around 10,000 people from the north-eastern cities of Nampula and Pemba found antibodies to the virus in five per cent and 2.5 per cent of participants respectively.

Mozambique has recorded just 58 Covid-19 related deaths. 

Researchers in neighbouring Malawi – where a lockdown was ruled unconstitutional, and the virus thus spread largely unchecked – found similar results.

They tested 500 asymptomatic health care workers in the southern city of Blantyre and concluded that 12.3 per cent of them had been exposed to the coronavirus. 

Immunologist Kondwani Jambo, of the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, who conducted the study, said: ‘Although health care workers are at higher risk to be infected, the outcomes do tell us that more people have been infected than estimated and the trajectory of the epidemic [in Malawi] is different from Europe, China and the Americas.’ 

Such a hypothesis might go some way to explaining a study among people who visited public health facilities for antenatal care and routine HIV tests in the Cape Town area. It found that 40 per cent of respondents had antibodies against Covid-19.

The researchers stressed that the results are preliminary and based on a skewed sample of 2,700 people, who aren’t representative of the overall population.

Still, the South African study suggested that ‘especially in poorer communities, a relatively high proportion of people has been exposed to and infected with Covid-19,’ according to Mary-Ann Davies, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Research at the University of Cape Town.

Blood transfusion.jpg

Professor Yap Boum said that he also found a high prevalence of Covid-19 antibodies in people from Cameroon. ‘During mobile screenings in [the capital] Yaoundé, we tested 3,000 random people and around 16 per cent already had antibodies.’

The regional representative for Epicenter Africa said that we have to be very careful with these smaller, not peer reviewed test cases, but added: ‘The results definitely tell us that more people have already had the virus than we found through regular Covid-19 testing. We have missed a large group of people, probably because they were not sick.’ 

Meanwhile, more and more experts have argued that these antibody studies are undercounting the number of people who have had the virus.

A team led by the Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University’s School of Clinical Medicine argued, for example, that many of the antibody tests used in studies miss out mild cases where people have overcome the disease by producing low levels of antibodies.

Most of the surveys only look for two types of dominant antibodies – Immunoglobulin G (IgG) and Immunoglobulin M (IgM) – but fail to look out for another antibody, IgA, which often acts as the body’s first line of defence against viruses and bacteria. 

A study in Luxembourg, for example, discovered more than five times as many people had IgA antibodies than IgG antibodies.

While researchers in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl found that a staggering 42.4 per cent of the population tested positive for antibodies when they added IgA testing to the mix.

In June, a paper by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute suggested another way in which antibody tests may have been undercounting the number of people who have had the virus.

They found that many people showed an immunological response to Covid-19 in their so-called ‘T-cells’ – another part of the body’s immune system – without necessarily showing antibodies in their blood. 

‘No single test can identify all individuals that have been infected by SARS-CoV-2,’ the immunologist Jambo acknowledged.

‘The IgG-based tests, like any other single test, underestimate the true proportion of the population that has had Covid-19, but they give you a minimum estimate useful for tracking the trajectory of the epidemic.’ 

Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University in the UK, acknowledged that some of these tests might have seriously underestimated the number of people who have been exposed to the virus.

She said: ‘Therefore, IgA tests in saliva are now being trialled. However, it’s very difficult and expensive to test for T-cells.’ 

In even more positive news, some scientists are even starting to argue that the fall in hospitalisations and deaths across the continent might be because Africa is already nearing ‘herd immunity’ – the idea that so many people have already caught the virus that there are not enough uninfected people for them to pass it on to, causing the virus to largely die out. 

‘In a few important case studies – Kenya, for example – what seems to be happening is the epidemic may be peaking earlier than our naive models predicted,’ Professor Francesco Checchi, a specialist in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Guardian.

He said a similar pattern had emerged in Yemen, where little was done to control Covid-19 because of the ongoing conflict there.

‘Yemen is one of the few countries where, to my knowledge, there is almost no prevention of Covid transmission,’ Checchi told the British newspaper.

‘The anecdotal reports we’re getting inside Yemen are pretty consistent that the epidemic has [...] passed. There was a peak in May, June across Yemen, where hospitalisation facilities were being overwhelmed.’ 

He added that this is no longer the case and concluded that, ‘it was possible that the population had accrued some sort of ‘herd immunity’, at least temporarily.’ 

Some experts argue that something similar is happening in parts of Africa where falling case numbers are not because the lockdowns were so successful, but rather they were so unsuccessful the virus spread like wildfire.

In many areas, like urban slums, lockdowns proved almost impossible to enforce, meaning large number of people might have already been exposed. 

‘I won’t say that a full country already managed to reach herd immunity,’ Yap Boum told NewsAfrica.

‘But in some specific clusters, 60 per cent of the people might have been already exposed [to the virus].’

The epidemiologist singled out Kenya as an example, where about 56 per cent of the population lives in urban slums.

‘Although the Kenyan government imposed a lockdown, over half of Kenyans didn’t have the possibility to lockdown as they are living in overcrowded informal settlements. 

‘They are sharing one toilet with hundreds of people, they live with many family members in a single bedroom house, have to move around through narrow alleys, and often don’t wear facemasks as they don’t feel the burden of the disease so much.’ 

He added the seroprevalence – or antibody results – will definitely be ‘high in these areas’, and said that he believed this might be the reason that infection rates are going down in Kenya. 

He continued: ‘In Cameroon, where we were not having any lockdown, and only bars were closed, infection cases are going down probably because many people already got the virus.’ 

However, some experts believe that the drop in Covid-19 cases in countries like Kenya and Cameroon should be treated with great caution as they might be connected to a decline in people getting tests.

In Kenya, for example, the number of tests performed per 10,000 people halved between August and September.

‘This decline closely mirrors trends for Nairobi and Mombasa counties but potentially may mask the national picture, as other counties are experiencing increasing case numbers,’ the WHO stated recently. 

A change in testing policy in South Africa could also have had an effect on the numbers of new cases, according to the WHO.

‘The country’s current policy of testing only those who present with symptoms makes full interpretation of case numbers difficult.’ 

More antibody surveys may help show the full picture. South Africa has recently initiated a national seroprevalence survey among over 30,000 people.

Meanwhile, a French-funded study is currently testing thousands for antibodies in Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea and Senegal.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has also started administering coronavirus antibody tests in Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

And 13 labs in 11 African countries are participating in a global antibody survey coordinated by the WHO.

Government scientists often claim herd immunity will only be achieved when 60 per cent of a population have been infected, however many top immunologists dispute these widely reported claims. 

It is more likely, a team from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine argued, that the true figure lies between 10 and 20 per cent.

The 60 per cent figure is based on the idea that we are all equally likely to contract the virus. In reality, according to the team’s leader, Gabriela Gomes, there is a wide variation in an individual’s susceptibility to becoming infected.

This view was echoed by Dr Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, who told the New York Times: ‘Herd immunity could vary from group to group, and subpopulation to subpopulation, and even by postal codes.’ 

The virus is thought to spread slowly in suburban and rural areas, where people live far apart, but rips through cities and households thick with people.

This became clear when researchers conducted a random antibody survey among households in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay).

They found a startling disparity between the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and its more affluent enclaves. Between 51 and 58 per cent of residents in poor areas had antibodies, versus 11 to 17 per cent elsewhere in the city. 

Furthermore, a neighbourhood of older people may have little contact with others but succumb to the virus quickly when they encounter it, whereas teenagers may bequeath the virus to dozens of friends and yet stay healthy themselves.

In the antibody study in Mozambique, the researchers noted a huge differentiation between people with different professions.

Ten per cent of the market vendors in Nampula had antibodies in their blood, while this was only the case with three per cent of bus and minibus drivers.

Once such real-world variations in density and demographics are accounted for, the estimates for herd immunity might fall. 

Other scientists warn that you cannot talk about herd immunity unless you’re 100 per cent sure that someone who has had the disease is going to be protected from contracting it again.

Recently, there were at least four separate cases of people who were re-infected with Covid-19 after they had earlier been infected, in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States.

‘Until we confirm that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 measured by antibodies is protective, we can’t really claim to be close to achieving herd immunity,’ the Malawian immunologist Jambo cautioned.

Other experts warned that cases in Africa might start to rise again, as many countries have only just started to loosen strict protective measures.

‘It’s too early to tell whether we are heading towards herd immunity, at least in Kenya, as we haven’t opened up completely,’ said the Kenyan pathologist Anne Barasa.

Her view was echoed by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who said: ‘If we look at the data, close to 120 countries worldwide have completed their first wave of the pandemic, over half of them have also had a second wave.’ 

Such a pessimistic outlook, however, isn’t shared across the board.

Many scientists point to countries like Sweden, which unlike the rest of Europe didn’t lock down, and now isn’t experiencing a large so-called ‘second wave’, like the rest of the continent. The virus there peaked without a lockdown, and the country has experienced few hospitalisations and deaths in recent months. 

Cameroonian epidemiologist Yap Boum admitted that it’s extremely hard to predict if Africa will suffer from a second wave. 

He said: ‘While being cautious, I do think that if tens of millions of Africans have already been infected, this raises the questions of whether the continent should try for herd immunity.’ 

He pointed out that it will take time before a vaccine against Covid-19 will become available – assuming one is ever developed – and said African countries would not be the first to get it.

Meanwhile, measures to control the pandemic, like lockdowns, have crippled economies and could harm public health more in the long run.

In a recent WHO survey of 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 22 per cent of countries reported that only emergency inpatient care for chronic conditions was available, while 37 per cent of countries reported that outpatient care was limited due to the pandemic.

With economies in ruins, and herd immunity potentially much closer than first thought, Yap Boum thinks Africa needs to stop mimicking the West. 

‘We need to be careful,’ concluded the epidemiologist.

‘But we also might need to be courageous.’ 

Update - August 2021: What is causing Africa's increase in cases post vaccination? Click to read.

Nkiru James, a 45-year-old housewife and businesswoman, had managed her beauty salon for eight years when the Covid-19 outbreak happened.

For the first time in eight years, her salon was locked for more than two months because of the lockdown.

According to James, her earnings pay for the food for her family of six, while her husband’s monthly salary settles utility bills and house rent.

Unfortunately, her husband’s monthly salary has also been slashed due to the impact of the pandemic.

After one week of lockdown, her family could barely eat as the little money she saved before the lockdown didn’t last long.

The family waited, believing that there would be support on the way from the government or NGOs, but all was in vain.

She said: ‘We were hoping that before we finished the food we stored in the house, the government intervention would have reached us.’

It never came.

Fortunately for the hairstylist, a friend introduced her to a new line of business of buying and selling perishable foodstuff daily.

‘My friend took me to the market, where vegetables are sold in bulk, and gave me a small space to display the perishable food I bought, so I can make sales and refund part of her money.

‘If we were waiting for government, we would starve to death with our children,’ she said.

‘It is a stressful routine for me and there is still no real financial gain in it. The hair-making business was decent and less stressful.’

James’s experience of the lockdown period is nothing unusual, with most average families in Nigeria also being forced into hardship before, during and after the lockdown.

Patrick Dosu, 39, was already struggling to survive when the lockdown bit.

In January, Dosu, who drove tricycles for a living, suddenly found himself out of work.

The Lagos state government had just banned the use of tricycles and motorcycles in some major parts of the state, causing a sudden rise in unemployment.

About 14,000 motorcycle and 50,000 tricycle operators lost their jobs overnight, while the cost of public transport soared as companies took advantage of the sudden collapse in competition and raised prices.

Dosu, who has an Ordinary National Diploma (OND), had been struggling to find a new job when the Covid-19 outbreak further crippled his efforts.

He said: ‘I was stranded when the lockdown was announced.

There was no money to buy food for two days, let alone for a whole month.

He said the church, his friends and family members gave him money and food that stopped him and his wife and two children from starving.

But added: ‘Life is even more difficult for a common man like me after the lockdown.

‘Instead of looking for means to ease our suffering, the government has increased the electricity tariff and the fuel pump price as well.’

With a young population and high levels of poverty, the fear is that lockdown-induced poverty will kill far more people than Covid-19 ever could in Nigeria.

About 90 million people, or 46 per cent of the population, lived on less than $2 a day before the pandemic.

Unemployment was also rising before the coronavirus outbreak, and the situation has further deteriorated with the pandemic.

Nigeria’s unemployment rate came in at 27.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, the highest on record.

It was the first time since 2018 that Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published such figures. It compares to 23.1 per cent seen back in the third quarter of 2018.

According to World Food Programme (WFO), it has been necessary for many major governments to introduce incentives and economic relief programmes that not only provide a financial cushion for affected individuals, but also fight the broader economic disruption caused by the virus.

Such programmes are intended to help alleviate small-scale business stress and bolster economic growth.

Elizabeth Byrs, a WFP representative, said more than 3.8 million people, mainly working in the informal sector, already face losing their jobs amid rising hardship in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, analysts maintain that the support measures introduced so far have not made the desired difference in the lives of citizens.

‘The donations made by individuals, corporate organisation and developed countries are yet to be accounted for,’ said Azu Osumili, a radio journalist and political analyst.

As a means of mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government created a Special Public Work programme of 774,000 jobs for 1,000 youths in each of the 774 local government areas in the country.

According to Festus Keyamo, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, the jobs are expected to provide modest stipends for itinerant workers to undertake drainage digging and clearance, irrigation canals clearance, rural feeder road maintenance, traffic control and street cleaning.

One of the youths who is well informed about the proposed federal government job intervention, Israel Ukpong (not his real name), said he is still waiting for the commencement of the project as announced by the government.

Ukpong, who used to work in a factory in Ogun state, said he also lost his job when the foreign nationals who ran the company he worked for left Nigeria at the start of the pandemic.

He stated: ‘Even the money and food they promised didn’t get to me. As it is now, I have no stable source of income. I go about taking menial jobs. Riding okada (motorcycles) would have been good, but then okada have been banned.’

To worsen the situation, the federal government through the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, more than doubled the cost of electricity.

Different stakeholders and some former leaders have expressed disgust and resentment at what they described as the insensitive hike in electricity tariffs and fuel pump price, saying that the increments are ill-timed and disregards the challenges currently faced by Nigerians.

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