Geopolitics

Africa's Healers, Quacks And Charlatans Cash In On Coronavirus

In Benin, Senegal or Mali, marabouts and traditional healers offer solutions which range from alternative medicine to downright quackery.

A man walks through a cloud of disinfectant smoke at the Grand Dakar market in Senegal.
Matteo Maillard

BAMAKO — The voice on the phone is cavernous, as if escaping from an oil lamp. On the other end of the line, Papa Amanveba answers politely, "Please excuse me, I was resting from my incantations." In these times of the pandemic related to the novel coronavirus, mystics like him are having no trouble finding work.

Grand master marabout, international spiritualist, traditional practitioner, eminent voodoo priest, distinguished disenchanter… His CV sums up his agenda pretty well. The illustrious healer claims he has "discovered an herbal tea against the coronavirus," which earned him renown outside of rural Benin, "all over Africa, but also in France, Spain and Asia." The remedy is guaranteed to destroy the virus in seven to 16 days. "Four people recovered thanks to me in Italy," he boasts.

His recipe? "A mixture of different barks, roots and…" to know the rest, you have to pay. "My information is not free," says the great master of herbs, who offers two delivery options. "By DHL… Otherwise, I can also make it appear next to your ear." The second option is faster, but more costly with a rate of 1 million CFA francs (1,524 euros), deposited to a Western Union account.

When it was pointed out that this is one expensive sip, the marabout became agitated and hung up, expressing regret that his "quality work" was being questioned, and reiterating that he is "known worldwide."

Healers like Papa Amavenba are widespread across the continent. Their classified ads cover highway barriers in Dakar, poles in Abidjan and walls in Conakry. A multitude of small tickets have even reached the sidewalks of the Barbès neighborhood, in Paris — and the darkest corners of the internet. These omnipotent marabouts, who normally cure the ills of love with potions, make ends meet with calabash and heal helplessness with a scepter, are everywhere. And now, for a few weeks, they're focused on making COVID-19 disappear. Now the barriers, posts and walls across Africa, which were once used in the great war against hemorrhoids, have given way to the fight against coronavirus.

In Senegal, a three-hour flight from Benin (or a snap of the fingers and some thought projection, according to Amavenba), Amadou Lamine Seye promises work that is "serious, quick and discreet." His specialty is verses from the Koran, which he distributes at 5,000 CFA francs in West Africa, 15,000 in Europe and 30,000 in China.

They preserve their authority, treat the symptoms but refer suspected cases to hospitals.

"I accept every method of payment except credit cards," he says. He gets calls from people as far off as Brazil to his village of Porokhane, a site of pilgrimage for the powerful Sufi brotherhood of the Mourides. To him, "corona is not difficult to treat, nothing to do with kidney failure," which would require many nights of prayer. If Covid-19 spreads across the country, he stands ready to wade into the blessed well, which is said to have been protecting the community from the meningitis epidemic since the 1980s.

"They are phonies!" concludes Dr. Ousmane Gueye, director of the National Educational and Information Service for the Promotion of Health in Senegal. He recognizes the influence of marabouts and healers in Africa as not only "immense," but it also "disturbs official information from the fight against coronavirus."

However, if the government is to curb the pandemic, it must join in the efforts of sorting out the charlatans from traditional doctors. "We organized a meeting with the association of traditional healers to raise their awareness of the risk and explain the measures to avoid transmission," says Gueye.The strategy seems to be working: "They preserve their authority, treat the symptoms but refer suspected cases to hospitals."

In Mali, traditional pharmacopoeia has also seen a swell in clientele since the start of the epidemic. In Bamako, Jean-Baptiste Niéki has been making capsules from roots and bark for twenty years. In his laboratory, he offers forty medicines to treat typhoid fever, infections, diabetes or hypertension. And he already has his anti-Covid-19 remedy ready, made with cinchona bark— the tree that produces quinine, the alkaloid for which chloroquine is the synthetic substitute.

"The symptoms are similar to malaria, which we know how to treat. Chloroquine works well and we use its natural version," he argues, ignoring the scientific findings, which have not come to the same conclusion.

But when counterfeit medicines proliferate in pharmacies because pharmaceutical molecules are too expensive, many Africans fall back on this traditional knowledge, with a sometimes blurred distinction between alternative medicine and quackery. "Actually, you also have them in the West," Mr. Nieki retorts.

And he isn't wrong… Since January, scammers have been flourishing in France, according to the Directorate General for Competition, Consumption and the Suppression of Fraud (DGCCRF). They offer air purifiers, anti-Covid-19 UV lamps, miracle concoctions and more, hoping to deceive the most gullible.

In the United States, Alex Jones, a radio host close to Donald Trump, promotes fake remedies, including a silver-based toothpaste. Televangelist Jim Bakke offers a colloidal anti-coronavirus gel, and the Vivify Holistic Clinic touts a eupatorium-based-tea as a "miracle plant."

So far, Papa Amanveba's herbal tea has not appeared next to our ear. His line rings into the void and, on his website, the eminent marabout has replaced his tirade extolling the merits of his drink with another message: "The grand master marabout, spiritualist and traditional healer, is doing wonders to find a concrete and adequate solution to this situation but, being a man of integrity, seriousness and honesty, he currently has no herbal tea or treatment to cure this virus."


For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ