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Covid toll on Africa has been more than lives; we have lost great talent

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By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

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On June 9, at the writing of this column, the total number of reported Covid-19 cases in Africa since the pandemic began stood at 4,946,536. The total deaths were 132,983.

That was a smidgen of the cumulative 174,136,688 cases reported globally on the same day, with a horrific 3,750,423 deaths.

Second and third waves of the virus have broken out in at least nine African countries, and Africa’s vaccination score is nothing to write home about (of the nearly 2.3 billion doses administered globally by Tuesday, just over 30 million of them had been given in Africa), so the worst might just lie, but the gods have not yet deserted us.

The deaths of all the 132,983 people killed by Covid-19 in Africa — and the nearly 3.8 million in the world — are tragic. Yet there is an added blow to Africa. We are a continent where many countries have talented people across many fields, and therefore, compared to others, we are the continent that can least afford to lose them. However, we have lost many.

My labour of love is the development of a digital museum of great figures and unsung heroes of African history called The Wall of Great Africans. We just posted a profile of Linah Kelebogile Mohohlo, a Botswana economist who was Governor of the Bank of Botswana from 1999 to 2016. She succumbed to Covid-19.

Going back to March 24, 2020 with the death of the iconic Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango, the Covid toll on our finest, has been high:

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  • Dorah Sitole was a renowned South African chef, food writer and editor.
  • Lungile Pepeta one of the most inspirational South African doctors of recent times.
  • Mohamed Melehi, a Moroccan painter who helped spur an artistic renaissance in his country.
  • Ahmed Ismail Hussein, Somali musician and an important figure in the country’s independence movement.
  • Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa, a leading Ugandan and African agricultural economist, academic and politician.
  • Béchir Ben Yahmed, the Tunisian journalist who founded the influential weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique.
  • Étienne Flaubert Batangu Mpesa, perhaps the most renowned Congolese pharmacist and science researcher.
  • Abdul Hakim Al-Taher, Sudanese director and actor, considered the pioneer of the idea of theatre for the deaf in the country.
  • Cosmas Magaya, a virtuoso of the mbira and giant of the craft in Zimbabwe.
  • Charles Bukeko (Papa Shirandula) a hugely popular comedian and actor who helped transform the acting profession in Kenya.
  • Djibril Tamsir Niane a Guinean historian, playwright and short story writer noted for introducing the Epic of Sundiata.
  • Mababa “Pape” Diouf, a Senegalese journalist and football agent who was the president of French football club Olympique de Marseille between 2005 and 2009. He was the first black president of a top flight football club in any of Europe’s top six leagues.
  • Leïla Menchari, a leading Tunisian designer and decorator who worked for Hermès as a decorator for over 50 years.

These are a handful of the more than 200 we have recorded and/or profiled. In 2023/2024, or possibly even 2026, when we reckon with what else Africa lost other than their lives, there could be a lot of red.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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AU and UN, can’t you see Africa’s looming meltdown?

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By TEE NGUGI

The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, has left tens of people dead. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled their homes into neighbouring Rwanda.

This latest crisis comes on top of decades-old conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced equal numbers. Thousands in this region need food aid every year. Periodic eruptions of Ebola, cholera and other diseases, including Covid-19, compound an already impossible situation.

In the wake of the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the eruption, the Norwegian Refugee Council declared “DR Congo is the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century’’. In an interview with a DRC minister, CNN’s Becky Anderson asked a point blank question: How did DR Congo, with most of the world’s mineral deposits, get to be the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century?

The minister lived up to the reputation of an African official when confronted with evidence of his own or his government’s monumental and criminal negligence. He gave circumlocutory excuses, stone-walled , then gave a master class in the art of subterfuge.

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We cannot stop volcanoes from erupting, but we can minimise, if not totally avoid, the humanitarian crises that follow. In 2002 , another eruption of Nyiragongo killed 250 people and displaced thousands of others. You would expect that the DR Congo government learned some lessons from that catastrophe. But the fat cats who run that country, always busy lining their pockets, had learned nothing. The Goma Volcano Observatory had not been functioning optimally due to corruption. It was even unable to pay for internet connection to remote monitors or transport staff to observation points.

DRC is not the only country in Africa in which negligence and theft have led to great humanitarian crises. In Nigeria, an oil rich country, security forces — undisciplined and starved of funds — are overwhelmed by ragtag Islamic insurgents and criminal gangs. Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Sahel countries of Niger, Mali and Mauritania have been so weakened by decades of negligence and theft, they, too, are incapable of holding off jihadists. The truth is that without French military support, the Sahel countries would fall to the terrorists in a few months.

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We have monumental humanitarian crises in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique and South Sudan, and others waiting to happen in Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea and Burundi. Others like Kenya, Uganda, Congo Brazzaville and Malawi , due to the same neglect and corruption, are finding it impossible to match development to population growth. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed years of negligence and corruption in all of Africa, including South Africa.

The African Union and the UN can go on burying their heads in the sand, refusing to see the looming apocalyptic meltdown of the continent. Or they could begin demanding accountability from those who manage our national affairs. There remains a small window in which to act.

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We’ve defeated polio, smallpox… oh, now you fear coronavirus vax!

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By ELSIE EYAKUZE

Within a year — less even — of the pandemic hitting the world, pharmaceutical companies had come up with not one or even two but several vaccination options. The process continues to be refined as we speak, a solution in motion.

I am in awe. When… how did technology get so amazing? What else will we be capable of if we just devoted more resources to preventive measures and other global crises? I am waiting to see what will be made available in my country — Tanzania.

Not everyone feels this way. I was minding my own business in the vicinity of a conversation last year when I accidentally eavesdropped because I heard the word “vaccine” but I politely tuned out again until my hearing picked up statements like “don’t trust…” and “they might mean us harm.” I had to look up and check.

To my disbelief, it was people here in Dar talking about the vaccines being a menace to Africans and Black people in general. For real.

Give us the benefit of the doubt, I thought. This might be a minority event. There have been disinformation campaigns targeting Africans, and Tanzania in particular attracted a lot of attention from people whose motives I never fathomed. Oh, how wrong I was. Anti-vaccination sentiment has been growing, and I hear it more often than I would have imagined. This is a phenomenon.

Conspiracy theories are fascinating, the weirder the better. I like them because they are a form of storytelling about ourselves and the world that is collective in nature — hardly a conspiracy if only one person believes it. Occasionally researching them can give startling bits of obscure history, little known facts.

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But in the end, as interesting as they are as a social phenomenon, I try to stay away from what they are selling. It’s the Us vs Them element that feeds our worst fears, and scared humans are bad news.

Finding genuine anti-vaccination sentiment right here at home took me by surprise. I’ll tell you where the logic fails for me: by virtue of being born here and most countries in the world, you have been vaccinated as an infant or a child. And we’ve defeated polio, smallpox… except in those small communities where people do not want to vaccinate their children against these dangerous illnesses.

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Even with my frustration with our education system I have never felt that we’re anti-science. Many schools of thought are welcome here.

But then again… there is such a thing as intergenerational trauma. This nebulous “They” who are planning to take over the continent and wipe out all people of African descent… aren’t exactly fiction.

The slave trades both Atlantic and Indian Ocean? Happened. There is only half a century separating many of us from self-rule.

In the obfuscations and politicised queries about the source of Covid-19 and the doubts about the vaccines’ efficacy, this is a perfect breeding ground for a very real fear to emerge.

You know what is truly Machiavellan? Exploiting a fear. Someone seems to have found a crack in our psyche.

In the Tanzanian anti-vax campaign’s early days, a number of American social media outlets advanced a narrative which gels with that of a belief that the world is out to get Black people and we must maintain our “purity” by refusing interventions, including medical ones.

I know the shape of the anti-vax movement in its hotspots, namely the part of American society that is certifiably insane, and a few dots here and there around the world that have become infected.

But to link it to a shared African super identity and scare people into doubting vaccination? That is a level of evil brilliance that is dangerous. Can you imagine what could happen if enough people refuse any forms of preventive measures and fail to achieve herd immunity?

It is hard to stomach that, as I write this, there are countries in real distress such as South Africa, and India, which now has a Black Fungus problem on top of everything else. Both countries with which we have close ties.

Close ties. Somehow in this anti-vax discussion, regular treatment we all rely on — the doctor’s visits, the run to the pharmacy, the myriad African scientists and their work — doesn’t come up. I thought that this article was going to be about arguing against anti-vax but that would be futile. The information is out there.

Lurking underneath the surface of what seems to be a contemporary debate is actually something else I have had a hard putting my finger on but which recurs: a crack in our psyche. The unfinished project.

Is this the unending business of liberation? At what point will we have that argument, discussion, healing with each other, in addition to pointing fingers outwards for all the things that aren’t right where necessary?

If I wanted to decimate a people, especially a people exploited for centuries — well, I will tell you more next week.

Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]

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Rich and poor Ugandans jostle for poison found closer to roads

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By JOACHIM BUWEMBO

Do you get this feeling, like me, that you might never shake hands with anybody again in this life, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic that has imposed new cultures by killing old ones?

Our grandchildren will hear the expression ‘shaking hands’ possibly to mean peace and then Google searches will show them that in the past, people used to grab each other’s hands in greeting.

Anyway, as Uganda enters the second — or is it third — wave of the pandemic, scientists are coming up with more discoveries that are set to change the way we value things. A recent one from Makerere University School of Public Health indicates that the longer the distance your house is from the main road, the longer you are likely to enjoy a healthier life free from the negative effects of breathing air polluted by the old cars that characterise the stock that rolls on our roads.

Now this goes contrary to our pursuit of prestige and convenience. Everyone wants to live and operate as near the main road as possible. In fact, the biggest theft of public property is mostly committed by the so-called downtrodden and poorest of society who settle in the road reserve.

Government has 20,000 kilometres of public road area, whose width is 30 metres, of which only about six metres is used or paved for driving for now. It means that 80 percent of 20,000 kilometres times 30 metres is up for grabbing by both the poor and rich, the powerful and the weak alike. You can do the dizzying maths to the size of the poisoning arena we are struggling to enter, using force, bribery and trickery to have our share of the importers gaseous toxic substances into our lungs.

For our people, they need to stay as near to the road as possible for reasons that include minimising the distance they have to walk to get public transport. So come rain or shine, they just jump from the house onto the commuter vehicle, which stops anywhere that a passenger hails it, since Uganda stopped having fixed bus stops in the mid-seventies.

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The other reason the poor need to be right there on the road is to station their little shops, bars, butcheries, restaurants, kiosks, vegetable market stalls so as to grab customers.

Meanwhile, the rich need to be near the road so that everyone can see their beautiful house and admire them. So all of our people, rich and poor, have been jostling for that plot nearest to the main road, little knowing they are jostling for poison taken in via their lungs. The vehicular exhausts on Ugandan roads are among the worst in the world because we abolished the limit on the age of the cars imported years ago, and the recent pronouncements on vehicular age limit are as easy to beat as other limits.

But don’t start imagining that people are going to vacate their plots on the edge of the main road just because some fellows at Makerere have said the location is poisonous. If I know my countrymen well, they will say that it is a plot to grab their plots. Since free Covid-19 immunisation started three months ago, they have largely shunned the exercise and, yes, leading in avoiding the jab were teachers and some health workers!

The Makerere scientists can come up with 10 other reports if they want, swearing that the air at the roadside is dangerous to the health of those who work or live there, nobody is going to budge. Not in the short run.

You see, no doctor in Uganda or another country for that matter issues a death certificate spelling out the cause of death as air pollution to which the deceased has been exposed for a few years. So if a fellow dies of lung cancer, our people will suspect that he was a secret smoker. Yet millions are smokers, unknowingly.

Last week, I listened to a distressed top cop, Commissioner Lawrence Niwabiine, currently in charge of traffic in Uganda, describing the danger some 2,000 Ugandan police personnel on traffic duty are exposed to as they stand for six to eight hours a day putting some sense in our unruly driving. He appealed to the Makerere public health researchers to conduct another study seeking to establish the magnitude of exposure people in his officers’ situation are subjected to, so as to arm him with scientific evidence to seek action to save their health.

It is still a long journey. For now, Uganda continues to bury some 40,000 people annually killed by exposure to vehicular exhausts, which is times higher than those when vehicles crash on knock them.

One day, our descendants should say that ancient Ugandans used to live by the roadside until their own locomotional exhausts killed enough of them.

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