At a time when Africa is tirelessly trying to fight off a Covid-19 third wave of infections, age-old customs and religious beliefs, viewed as sacrosanct, have become the most potent threats as the virus spreads across the continent.


Ancient customs ignore a modern virus

Health experts have warned the third wave is deadlier, carrying fast and highly transmissible variants.

The continent’s deeply conservative rural areas and progressive urban ones alike have insisted on maintaining their pre-Covid-19 lives, despite Africa’s fragile healthcare system.

People have continued to attend funeral wakes where hundreds are crowded into a single space, singing and performing traditional funeral rites, such as the washing and viewing of bodies. Bereaved families also host night vigils and sleep in the same room as the deceased.

As well as this, large clandestine religious gatherings have continued, attracting those who are interested in ‘miracles and prophecies’ about their future wellbeing.

All these activities clash with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) public health preventive measures. But they are also nearly impossible to stop.

A growing emergency

As things stand, without adequate intervention, Africa may experience a more devastating Covid-19 third wave, and a rising death toll. On July 15, a 43 per cent weekly increase in Covid-19 deaths has been recorded with hospitals continuing to rapidly fill up.

Some parts of the African community have deliberately turned a blind eye to the impact of the Delta variant. This variant has already spread to more than 90 countries globally and has been detected in 21 countries in Africa, according to the WHO.

Health specialists believe the strain is 60 per cent more transmissible than the UK’s Alpha variant.

The WHO continues to urge everyone to get vaccinated, yet Africa has remained by far the slowest in relation to the global average of vaccinated people. As of July 23, only 2.2. per cent of Africa’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

According to the Africa Centre for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), the death toll has risen by 13 per cent in the last few weeks owing to the third wave.

Zimbabwe’s Ubuntu Philosphy

Zimbabwe’s government has announced through the Ministry of Health that cultural traditional practices have become the major spreaders of Covid.

Recently, Zimbabwe recorded over 100 deaths in 24 hours since the outbreak of the Delta variant in the country. Despite these alarming figures, citizens have continued with their age-old custom of Ubuntu culture (also known as Ubuntism) meaning ‘humanity’, which is also sometimes translated as ‘I am, because we are’ or ‘humanity towards others’.

The Ubuntu philosophy is far removed from the WHO’s preventative measures for containing the spread of the virus. Through Ubuntism, people customarily shake hands at funerals to denote care for each other’s sorrow and mourn the loss of their loved ones as a community or family. In the native Shona and Ndebele languages, this is called: ‘kubata maoko’ or ‘ukubamba izandla’, respectively.

A state-owned newspaper, The Herald, published an article on July 22, reporting that five villagers from Lower Gweru succumbed to Covid-19 within seven days. Their deaths came as a result of attending a relative’s funeral who had died of coronavirus in South Africa.

Meanwhile, prominent Zimbabwean health expert, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya, has warned his fellow countrymen to remain vigilant amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In an interview with The Chronicle, Ngwenya commented that cultural traditions were endangering lives by being super spreaders:

‘Some of our traditional practices are now inappropriate in the face of Covid-19 pandemic. Some of these practices are contravening health regulations and contribute to Covid-19 spread. So ubuntu could affect our survival from Covid-19. Hence, our people have to change the way we mourn our relatives. Funerals have become super spreading events.

‘We need to get rid of funeral vigils and allow only a few relatives, maybe 10 people on the day of the burial, to go to the cemetery. Then there is the issue of visiting, or caring for the ill, that is very dangerous as it can also lead to the spread of Covid-19. The ill should be taken to hospitals’.

A wave of protests

Mass protests across the continent have only added to the spread of the virus. Last month, South Africa (SA) and Eswatini (Swaziland) experienced an avalanche of protests. In SA, hundreds of pro-Zuma protesters gathered at his homestead at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal trying to protect the former president from being arrested.

Eswatini saw dozens of people unanimously gathering to protest the autocratic political system that has kept 53-year-old King Mswati in power for 35 consecutive years.

To make matters worse, these protesters destroyed their countries health facilities.

SA’s acting health minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi, reported that 120 private pharmacies and 47,500 vaccines were destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal, derailing government efforts to fight the virus.

Reckless preachers spreading lies

Religious activity has proven to be another super spreader.

So-called Evangelical church religious leaders and other (open-air) church clergymen have been leading people astray with misinformation and outright falsehoods. Their conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the vaccine have resulted in widespread despondency, scepticism, and vaccine hesitancy.

Some of these religious leaders have associated vaccines with the Bible’s cryptic ‘mark of the beast’ — alluding to Satan worship — telling congregants to abstain from being vaccinated because they contain microchip implants.

Other religious leaders, such as the late and controversial Nigerian Evangelical preacher T.B. Joshua, once gave millions of his followers falls hope by predicting that the virus would come to an end in March 2020. He later withdrew his words, saying that he meant the disease will come to an end in March 2020 in Wuhan, China.

These preachers recklessly advise their congregants to put their faith solely in God. They emphasise that praying hard and believing in God’s love is the only solution. When it comes to protection, no health measures can compare to the almighty’s Holy Spirit. Regrettably, Africa’s continuing deaths from the virus tell another story.