What you need to know:
- The piece elicited backlash from social media users for the better part of Thursday.
- This is not the first time that scientists or journalists have expressed astonishment at Africa's low infection rates.
Africans on social media, including scientists, have expressed their disappointment over an article published by BBC Africa that explores possible theories, including poverty as a defence against coronavirus, in a bid to explain why so few Covid-19 deaths have been recorded on the continent in comparison to the rest of the world.
The piece, which posits in part that poverty may "be the the best defence against Covid-19", was published on Thursday morning.
Since Covid-19 began to spread rapidly outside China -- the initial epicentre -- to other parts of the globe, western scientists and journalists have been scrambling to explain why virus spread and deaths in Africa have remained low.
Early mathematical models had projected that the continent’s fragile health systems would be overrun and that poor living conditions would translate to high numbers of confirmed cases and deaths.
However, data shared by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control (AfricaCDC) indicate that about 1.3 million cases, 30,200 deaths, and one million recoveries have been recorded since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Egypt in February.
In the last one week, cases have reduced by an estimated 21 percent from 52,544 to 41,614 cases. Deaths have also decreased by 13 percent from 1,562 to 1,363.
The story, which attempts to interrogate why the impact has remained low in South Africa, reads in part: “For months health experts have been warning that living conditions in poor, urban communities across Africa are likely to contribute to a rapid spread of coronavirus...What if those same crowded conditions also offer a possible solution to the mystery that has been perplexing experts on the continent for months? What if - and this is putting it rather crudely - poverty proves to be the best defence against Covid-19?”
It quotes Professor Shabir Madhi, South Africa's top virologist, as expressing surprise that most African countries did not experience a peak like other parts of the world.
The piece elicited backlash from social media users for the better part of Thursday.
Now, some scientists have added to the criticism, noting that whereas the article itself explored credible hypotheses, the framing of the headline and “one or two sentences in the article were worrisome.”
“I disagree with the framing of the headline as well, the issue on the table is possible immune protection due to previous exposure to other coronaviruses. Unfortunately, a lot of these headlines simply push certain narratives and downplay things that we know for sure have had a big impact on how the pandemic is playing out on the continent like early, effective interventions put in place by African governments; demography, which is briefly discussed in the article etc,” said Jordan Kyongo, a Kenyan public health specialist.
Meanwhile, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) Catherine Kyobutungi tweeted: “In other words there's light at the end of the tunnel - that poverty is a good thing?”
She further explained that poverty and cross-immunity from coronaviruses are not the same thing as implied in the article.
“There are many ways in which Africans socialise in large groups - markets, churches, mosques, weddings, funerals etc... Why the negative connotations that dwell on poverty? Even in good times, we can't prosper,” she said in response to a query from this writer.
“Not a scientist but it's a bit weird to frame it this way given that poverty is a clear determinant of a poor outcome in many other parts of the world,” said Linda Nordling, a science journalist and editor of Scientific African magazine.
While experts have cited Africa’s youthful population as one of the reasons for low infections and especially deaths, the fact that the continent also grapples with a myriad of communicable and non-communicable diseases like Tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, cancer, diabetes among others, was seen as a factor that would have pushed Covid-19 numbers up to exponential levels.
However, this has not been the case.
This is not the first time that scientists or journalists have expressed astonishment at Africa's low infection rates.
As the virus ravaged parts of Europe months back, experts warned it was too early to celebrate that Africa had been spared the worst of it.
This was mostly due to limited testing capacity which meant that numbers at the time may have masked the true picture.
Perhaps it is this scepticism, which is seen as overlooking early mitigation efforts such as lockdowns, citizen education and aggressive screening at ports of entry, that has rubbed many Africans online the wrong way.
So when Thursday's BBC story was published, there was a flurry of bitter reactions as African journalists also expressed their disappointment with the headline.
“Could it be that “Africa’s poor” have a stronger immune system... I sarcastically ask,” Ugandan journalist Joy Doreen Biira posted.
Another Ugandan scribe, Walter Mwesigye, wrote: “Dear BBC Africa, Africa has scientists (HIGHLY QUALIFIED) just like the rest of the world who adequately advise us (natives) on the best practices. Poverty is a global challenge otherwise the poor in the United Kingdom would be non-existent by now. Shame on you!”
While responding to a tagged post by a Twitter user, former BBC Africa Business editor Larry Madowo said of the article: "...I never worked on the website though I’ve written for them. They’re fine journalists but this framing is problematic."
In response to the online backlash today, the author of the BBC piece, Andrew Harding, said: “I'm trying to follow, and explore, the science. The experts here are confused about what's happening with Africa's pandemic. The data is emerging. Hypotheses are being tested. End of story. I'm sorry if anyone felt offended by the headline. I stand by my reporting.”
Some social media users, however, turned to humour in their reactions to the piece.
"It could also be African sorcery Mr Harding," Twitter user KyekueM quipped.
Update: Following reader concerns, BBC Africa has made some changes to the story.
“The headline and article have been updated to better reflect what the scientists said. It was not our intention to cause offence,” the news agency posted on its Twitter handle.
Additional reporting by Lynette Mukami