Africa's new dawn for democracy

While the West seems to have abandoned many of its basic democratic principles during the Covid-19 pandemic, in Africa governments have been voted out of office, lockdowns overthrown – and people have been taking to the streets in defence of civil rights. NewsAfrica examines whether 2020 marks a turning point for the continent – or yet another false dawn.

‘Nigeria will never be the same again, no matter how the #EndSARS protests end,’ the Nigerian journalist Cletus Ukpong told NewsAfrica.

He was referring to the ongoing mass protests that have rocked major Nigerian cities, including Lagos, Abuja, Abakiliki, Jos, Umuahia and many more.

The demonstrations were sparked in October by a viral video of a man allegedly being killed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The controversial SARS unit of the Nigerian Police Force has a long history of abuse. But what started as demonstrations against police brutality grew into an enormous mass protest – the result of pent-up anger in the West African state over the dehumanising policies of government, maladministration, and the growing problem of hunger, joblessness and high energy prices caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.

And while Africa’s most-populated country may have witnessed such mass demonstrations before, including the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest in January 2012, many observers claim that the #EndSARS protests have been different.

Some even called them the ‘protests of the decade’.

‘No previous protests have been so massive and so widely supported by all segments of society,’ said Dapo Olorunyomi, co-founder, CEO, and publisher of the Premium Times, who was one of the four global winners of this year’s International Press Freedom awards.

‘In the past, you would see that parents would tell their children: please, don’t go out. But now, parents encouraged their kids to participate, despite of the danger,’ said the Nigerian.

Even religious leaders have endorsed the protests. In a recent statement, several bishops, including the head of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, urged officials to listen to the protesters and added: ‘The audacity and impunity with which the SARS officials have been operating all the while is a manifestation of the failing state of Nigeria.’

The protests have also been remarkably well organised ‘in a way that Nigeria has never seen before’, according to Olorunyomi.

Arrangements have been made, for example, for food and water.

They have medical personnel on standby, ambulances and mobile toilets for convenience.

And the costs of the protests are being funded primarily through decentralised donations from Nigerians at home and abroad.

Local tech start-ups – most of which are led by young entrepreneurs – have also become prominent actors in the campaign, with donations for the firms being used to pay off hospital bills for those injured in protests.

Like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the #EndSARS movement is unique in that it has no clear leader or hierarchy driving it.

Yet, thanks to the use of online platforms, the activists have managed to quickly raise global support, including from celebrities like Kanye West and Beyoncé, ‘Star Wars’ actor John Boyega and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

In Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, the Nigerian diaspora has also organised protests in solidarity with their counterparts at home.

‘Nigerian youth were often seen as lazy and unthoughtful, a perception largely fuelled by the government,’ mused Olorunyomi.

‘Therefore, people were positively surprised by the way that these articulated, educated youth have been organising these protests.’

Several regional politicians soon endorsed the protests.

The Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, for example, stated that ‘there is nothing wrong in what the young people are doing. I think we should encourage them to ask more questions.’

And the Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, said that seeking an end to SARS’s brutality is a worthy cause that must be supported by all.

Within three days of the protests starting in October, Nigeria's Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the ‘dissolution’ of SARS under pressure from protesters and politicians.

However, with the SARS officers set to be redeployed to other police departments rather than sacked, the demos have not only continued, but grown louder, with protesters calling for a total overhaul of Nigerian society.

But such muscle-flexing hasn’t be confined to Nigeria. Protest movements have popped up across Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic, and, unlike the partisan movements that flare up from time to time, these demonstrations are somewhat unique in that they’re all led by youngsters.

In Namibia, for example, the capital Windhoek has been brought to a standstill by protestors demanding immediate political action on gender-based violence.

The #ShutItAllDown protests were sparked after the body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave outside the Namibian port town of Walvis Bay.

The protests later spread to other towns when, a week later, a 27-year-old woman was allegedly brutally murdered by her boyfriend because she wanted to end their relationship. 

In a petition addressed to the speaker of the National Assembly, the campaigners called on Namibian authorities to declare a state emergency over gender-based violence, and review sentencing laws for sex offenders and murderers, among others.

They also demanded the resignation of Doreen Sioka, minister of gender equality, poverty eradication and social welfare.

Like neighbouring South Africa, violence against women is a persistent problem in Namibia, in particular, sexual violence and ‘femicide’ – the intentional killing of women or girls because they are females.

Reports earlier this year said police were receiving at least 200 cases of domestic violence a month in the country of slightly under 2.5 million people, while more than 1,600 cases of rape were reported during the 18 months ending in June 2020.

Campaigners said that, like in other parts of the world, the lockdown introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19 had made life even harder for domestic violence survivors forced to self-isolate with their abusers.

But protests haven’t been confined to Namibia and Nigeria.

Young people also took to the streets in cities across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in October to campaign about historic murders and rapes committed in the east of the country.

Meanwhile, Zimbabweans have stared down Emmerson Mnangagwa’s infamous security forces as part of the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter protests kicked off by local rappers and influencers.

And it’s not just protests. Despite the pandemic, Africa has witnessed a number of national elections in the past few weeks, including in the Seychelles, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

This flurry of polling stands in sharp contrast to Europe, where scheduled elections have been cancelled, with civil rights groups lamenting a deterioration of democratic values.

Experts from the American think-tank Freedom House identified what they called a troubling ‘crisis of confidence’ in the US and Europe, where governments have curtailed long-held democratic rights during the pandemic, including freedom of speech, freedom of protest and freedom of the press.

Draconian lockdown laws have also been largely introduced on the whim of ministers in many Western countries, with subsequent attempts to challenge them in parliament or the courts often blocked.

A report by the UK’s Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, for instance, warned that Britain under Boris Johnson’s lockdown regime is currently suffering a ‘pandemic of misinformation' that if allowed to flourish will result in the collapse of public trust and see democracy ‘decline into irrelevance’.

The former British Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption went even further, saying in late October that the laws introduced during the pandemic will undo the unity of British society and lead to long-term authoritarian government.

He accused Boris Johnson’s administration of creating 'truly breath-taking' new criminal offences without the legal right to do so, and of giving police 'unprecedented discretionary' enforcement powers, some of which were used to suppress peaceful opposition to its policies.

The grim situation in the UK, where a doctor was arrested and held for 22 hours for reading out a letter objecting to government policy, is in stark contrast to Great Britain’s former African colony Malawi, where, in a move largely ignored by the world’s press, its judges not only ruled the country’s lockdown unconstitutional but ordered the president to go to the polls for re-election, which he subsequently lost.

The Malawi High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, barred a lockdown in April and, in September, even ruled that the Covid-19 rules, including the attempted lockdown, were unconstitutional.

In its decision, the three judges found that the rules were unconstitutional as they were made in terms of a law that did not permit such rules to be made.

They also criticised the government for imposing a lockdown without concern for the poor of Malawi who would not be able to access food and other essentials if they could not leave their homes.

Malawi has currently registered only around 6,000 Covid-19 infections and just 185 people have officially died of the virus.

‘The levels of poverty in Malawi are such that a lockdown without relief would have been equivalent to death,’ said the Malawi political analyst Boni Dulani, who is also the Director of Research and Operations at the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR).

‘In a survey done by our institute, most Malawians said they were more scared of dying of hunger than of Covid-19.’

Dulani admits that the court order was significant – protestors in Britain have yet to have their case heard in the Supreme Court – but he reserved his most gushing praise for the ‘boldness’ of civil society organisations that went to court and challenged the lockdown order.

‘This is a new approach by civil society organisations,’ said the political analyst, who is also a senior lecturer in Political Science at the University of Malawi.

‘Previously, they have limited their approach to protests and demonstrations but increasingly, they are also very active in seeking the legal option.’

The shock decisions by the Malawian courts in April and September followed a series of landmark democratic moments in the southern African republic, which was ruled by a brutal dictatorship for the first three decades after independence.

In February, the courts nullified the 2019 presidential elections and ordered a rerun, saying: ‘Irregularities had been so widespread, systematic and grave that the results of the elections had been compromised and couldn’t be trusted as a reflection of the votes.’

Against everyone's expectations, opposition candidate Lazarus Chakwera won the re-run election in June, which made it the first time a court-overturned vote in Africa led to the defeat of an incumbent leader.

‘This constitutional court ruling was historic on several fronts,’ explained Dulani.

‘It demonstrates that we now have a new progressive generation of judges that are very willing and ready to make independent judgements that can significantly alter the political landscape.

He added: ‘While challenging election results previously was largely an academic exercise, with little likelihood of the results being reversed, the historic ruling that annulled the 2019 presidential election will certainly embolden other election petitioners in the future.’

The recent opposition victory in Malawi, according to Dulani, is also one of the marks of a ‘maturing democracy’, while he said the court’s decision to force a second vote ‘will go a long way in emboldening the judiciary on the African continent to make decisions on political matters that previously would not have been envisaged.’

The Malawian judiciary is not alone in its new-found confidence.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), which was established in 2004 by African countries, has taken a number of unusually bold decisions this year.

The continental court, which is based in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, ruled, for instance, that Ivory Coast should allow ex-rebel leader Guillaume Soro and the former president Laurent Gbagbo – who was acquitted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court last year – to participate in the countries’ presidential election.

The country’s electoral commission had disqualified both men from the October 31 poll due to their criminal convictions.

Arnaud Oulepo, a research associate at the Centre of Research for International Cooperation and Development, University Cadi Ayyadin Morocco, said the presence of the court made ‘coup d’état or violence’ less likely.

‘The positive thing is that it means that democracy and electoral matters are more and more litigated in courts.’

However, the bold decisions regarding Soro and Gbagbo also seem to have little effect as Ivory Coast simply withdrew its recognition of the court’s jurisdiction in April this year and barred the two candidates from standing anyway.

Ivory Coast’s decision to quit the court, follows in the footsteps of Benin and more authoritarian states, like Tanzania and Rwanda, which left the court after similarly robust rulings.

Tanzania withdrew its support in November 2019, despite being the host of the AfCHPR.

While Rwanda left after growing concerned that the African Court might be used as a platform to ‘change the narrative’ of the country’s 1994 genocide (a criminal offense under the Rwandan criminal code).

‘The withdrawal of these states is unfortunately a bad signal,’ said Oulepo. ‘As former US president Barack Obama said: “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”

‘Those institutions, including the AfCHPR [court], will never come close to reaching their due potential if they are constantly under attack by leaders who seem to care more about entrenching their own power rather than protecting the rights of their citizens,’ added the Morocco-based law expert, who believes that the judiciary in Africa is starting to play a more significant role in law-making.

Of course, Africa is by no means a utopia. In many parts of the continent, human rights are sharply deteriorating, including in Mali, which is facing ethnic and tribal conflict, as well as the Northern Provinces of Cameroon where the army and rebels alike have both committed atrocities.

October’s elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast were overshadowed by the threat of violence.

While protests in Nigeria are starting to take a troubling – and all too familiar – turn for the worse.

Indeed, what started out as small peaceful protests that drew concessions from the government, quickly turned violently as gangs attacked protesters in various cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja.

Rioters also vandalised public buildings, burned private businesses and stormed prison facilities to help inmates escape, prompting state governors to impose curfews to curb the escalating unrest.

On October 20, meanwhile, the Lagos governor ordered a 24-hour curfew in a move straight from the old play book, and on the same day security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who were waving Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem in Lekki.

The attack was live streamed on Instagram by a witness and caused widespread outrage.

Speaking after the massacre, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said 51 civilians had been killed and 37 injured since demonstrations began, which he blamed on ‘hooliganism’.

He also accused ‘rioters’ of killing 11 policemen and seven soldiers.

Buhari’s statement came two days after Amnesty International put the death toll at 56, with about 38 killed on October 20. Amnesty said investigations on the ground confirmed that the army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters in Lekki and Alausa, another area of Lagos where #EndSARS protests were being held.

With the government taking an increasingly firm hand against the protests, not everyone is convinced the #EndSars movement may end up being the watershed moment it appeared to be for Africa’s largest democracy in mid-October.

‘It's unclear what comes next for the #EndSars movement,’ said the BBC Nigeria correspondent Mayeni Jones.

‘On the surface, most of their five points demands have been met. Some of the detained protesters have been released. Panels of enquiry have been set up around the country to investigate allegations of police brutality - although how independent they really are is up for debate.’

Crucially, though, one of the protesters’ key demands – compensation and justice for victims of police brutality – has yet to be answered, and talk has already moved to how the protests could impact Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections.

Protesters are said to be hoping to capitalise on their new-found popularity to campaign on issues relevant to this youthful nation.

‘The events of the past two weeks have transformed Nigerian youth into a force to be reckoned with in the general elections, less than three years from now,’ said Chioma Agwuegbo, of Not Too Young To Run, an advocacy group dedicated to getting young Nigerians into public office.

She told Al Jazeera that 2023 will be ‘interesting for the future of the country because there’s rage’.

Yet while the streets may be ablaze with fury and the courts may be flexing their muscles in the face of government over-reach, the jury’s still out on whether this defiant new spirit will lead to long-term societal change in Africa.

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Malawi debates gay marriage

Malawi's new government announces possible changes to anti-sodomy legislation, including allowing gay couples to marry.

Malawi made headlines last month after announcing to a UN conference that it may not only decriminalise gay sex – but it is also considering whether to allow gay couples to get married, too.

The decision by the newly elected government would mark a major policy shift in the staunchly Christian country, which only a decade ago had faced a fierce Western backlash, after two men in a same-sex relationship were convicted and sentenced to a lengthy jail term.

The couple, 26-year-old Steven Monjeza and 33-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, were arrested in December 2010 two days after celebrating an engagement party.

They were sentenced to an effective 14-year jail term for ‘unnatural acts’, although both were subsequently pardoned following a meeting between UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon and then President Bingu wa Mutharika the same year.

Since then, Malawi has been cited by western media as one of the most ‘intolerant’ countries for gay and lesbian people.

However, all that could be about to change, after the minister of justice and constitutional affairs, Titus Mvalo, presented Malawi’s human rights report to the United Nations’ 36th session of the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, Switzerland.

The report revealed that the Malawi Human Rights Commission was conducting a study on whether same-sex relationships could be legalised.

The international gay rights’ organisation OutRight Action International applauded the comments by Mvalo.

‘This is a bold step taken by Malawi in declaring the possibility to decriminalise consensual same sex relations,’ said its Africa Programme Officer, Yvonne Wamari.

‘The forum they chose to make such a statement speaks volumes of their recognition of LGBTIQ persons within the human rights spectrum.’

Wamari said there has been a recent trend in southern Africa towards decriminalising same-sex relations, including in the countries of Angola and Botswana.

But while Mvalo’s statements were welcomed by many gay rights’ activists, others pointed out that this is not the first time Malawi has made public statements suggesting reform to laws around sex.

Shortly after taking office in May 2012, the country’s newly installed president Joyce Banda committed to urgently repealing some of the laws, including ‘the provisions regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts.’

But Banda’s promises of urgent action remained just that until she left office in 2014.

Meanwhile, OutRight Action International believes a change in the law will achieve little in itself, and pointed to countries like South Africa where gay and lesbian people face considerable persecution, despite strong constitutional protection.

‘To see real change there will need to be a change in perceptions to an extent of recognition and tolerance of LGBTIQ individuals allowing them to live as their true selves,’ said the spokeswoman.

‘In Africa, we are still a far cry from that. Traditions and culture are too deeply ingrained in us that anything that goes against that is labelled un-African.’

In July, the High Court of Uganda awarded damages equivalent to $1,340 to a group of 20 homeless gay people who had been arbitrarily detained and denied legal access after complaints about their sexual orientation.

The court ruled that Uganda’s prison system’s refusal to allow them access to legal representation violated their rights.

She said the reality for gay people in other African countries was even worse, with authorities using ‘forced anal testing’ to secure sodomy convictions.

There are 72 jurisdictions around the world that still criminalise private, consensual sexual activity between adults of the same sex, according to the London-based Human Dignity Trust.

Almost half of these are in Commonwealth countries like Malawi and Uganda.

Meanwhile, there are 11 jurisdictions in which the death penalty is imposed in sodomy cases, including Nigeria and Somalia, as well several where the possibility of capital punishment exists, like Mauritania.

But while capital punishment is still on the statute in many African countries, the Human Dignity Trust said there was a movement away from the imposition of the death penalty.

In July, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) reported that Sudan’s Sovereign Council had approved new laws and passed amendments to existing laws, including the removal of the death penalty and the administration of 100 lashes as punishment for same-sex intimacy.

The Senate of Gabon, meanwhile, also voted to decriminalise same-sex relations in July – much to the outrage of Muslim and Christian groups, as well as more than half of MPs who either abstained or voted against the changes.

Speaking at the time, the country’s one-time finance minister Blaise Louembe denounced the country’s decision to decriminalise homosexuality, saying: ‘My attachment to the constitution, and to our ancestral values do not command me to authorise or encourage such practices.’

But while laws against same-sex relationships are often justified on the grounds that homosexuality is a Western import, the human rights’ lawyer Abadir M Ibrahim believes the opposite is true.

‘Pre-colonial Africa entertained a diverse set of ways in which non-heterosexuality and non-heteronormativity were expressed,’ said the Ethiopian.

‘It was colonialism that introduced the now widespread religious and legal norms that policed sexuality and gender.

‘The current wave of homophobia is also based on Western anti-LGBT rights discourses and in some part is sponsored by Western/American evangelical groups.’

An estimated four in five Malawians oppose legalising gay relationships, according to Alan Msosa an academic with the University of Bergen in Norway who has been interviewing locals on the topic.

‘Eighty per cent believe that homosexual sex is wrong, but one in three believe God loves people in same-sex relationships.’

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Has Africa reached herd immunity?

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. 

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.’ 

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.

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.’ 

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