Covid-19 vaccines face a trust gap against some traditional African remedies

Vaccine obstacles.
Vaccine obstacles.
Image: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo
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In the early days of Covid-19, people from Zimbabwe to Tanzania turned to home remedies for a disease about which little was known. But now, even as African countries begin rolling out vaccine programs, many could still stick with traditional treatments.

Amid a serious surge in cases, after people traveled over the Christmas season from South Africa where a new variant has been spreading, Zimbabwe began vaccinations for healthcare and frontline workers last week, with some 200,000 donated doses of China’s Sinopharm shot. Ghana, meanwhile, received the first vaccine doses from Covax, the initiative to help low and middle-income countries get Covid-19 vaccines.

But between fear of the new vaccine, and low supply across the continent, interviews in Zimbabwe suggest that many still plan to—and perhaps have to—rely on herbal treatments.

Itai Rusike, executive director of Zimbabwe’s Community Working Group on Health, a network of community-based organizations, says it’s common for people in the country to first consult traditional healers or use home remedies to treat general illnesses before seeking modern medical care services, especially for those in rural areas who live far away from medical health facilities.

“This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as the majority of people in Zimbabwe seem to have more faith and trust in home remedies to prevent and treat Covid-19 related illnesses due to vaccine disinformation and skepticism,” Rusike said. This was a view also expressed to Quartz by other health experts, as well as ordinary citizens.

That preference has also been shaped by government backing for herbal treatments as one form of Covid-19 treatment in the early months of the pandemic last year, a move that physicians criticized, and which could now hamper vaccination efforts.

A nurse prepares to vaccinate Zimbabwean vice-president Constantino Chiwenga as the country begins vaccinations against Covid-19 on Feb. 18.
A nurse prepares to vaccinate Zimbabwean vice-president Constantino Chiwenga as the country begins vaccinations against Covid-19 on Feb. 18.
Image: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

A boost for Covid-19 home remedies from governments

Zimbabwe was in the middle of its worst economic crisis in decades, with a frayed healthcare system suffering from shortages of medicines and protective equipment, when it experienced its first Covid-19 death last March.

In April 2020, Zimbabwe’s government authorized traditional herbalists to treat Covid-19 using herbs as an alternative to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on a respiratory disease that not much was known about at the time.

Zimbabwe was not alone: other African nations such as Madagascar and Tanzania authorized and promoted the use of home remedies to cure Covid-19 without research.

In April 2020, Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina launched a herbal tea which was marketed in bottles. According to the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, which developed the beverage, the herbal remedy is produced mainly from artemisia, a plant with proven efficacy against malaria. Tanzania’s president John Magufuli, who was quick to declare the country Covid-19 free last June, also ordered a shipment of the Madagascan herbal medicine to treat the respiratory disease last year.

In Zimbabwe, there has been a rise in the number of traders packaging Zumbani tea leaves for sale in the cities, to treat Covid-19 related symptoms. The woody shrub is known scientifically as Lippia javanica, part of the verbena family, and is often used for fevers and flu.

Africa University, located in the eastern part of Zimbabwe, is in the process of developing cough drops made from the Zumbani plant.

“The cough drops are not going to be sold as a pharmaceutical drug for now, but a herbal remedy, and they will be available commercially in one month’s time,” an Africa University official told Quartz Africa.

Pallbearers carry a coffin at the burial of two cabinet ministers and a retired general who died after contracting Covid-19 in Harare, Jan. 27.
Pallbearers carry a coffin at the burial of two cabinet ministers and a retired general who died after contracting Covid-19 in Harare, Jan. 27.
Image: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

For now, there’s no research showing the efficacy of these medicines for treating or preventing Covid-19—though Zimbabwe’s health minister Constantino Chiwenga has advocated for medical facilities to ascertain the efficacy of traditional medicine and herbs to combat the novel coronavirus. But the government’s backing of these remedies, coupled with vaccine skepticism expressed even by officials, could hamper Zimbabwe’s goal of vaccinating 60% of its population. The government hasn’t said when it hopes to reach that target.

High-level Covid-19 vaccine skepticism

The Covax program has committed to vaccinating at least 20% of Africa’s population, or about 300 million people, by the end of this year.

In Zimbabwe, as in many African nations, the Covid-19 vaccination campaign could be held back by vaccine hesitancy around imported vaccines, fueled by a cocktail of lack of information, misinformation, and conspiracy theories around Covid-19 vaccines.

The donated Chinese vaccine, in particular, has sparked anxiety because it has not been authorized by the World Health Organization, and also has a lower efficacy rate than the shots developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

But more broadly, frontline workers and religious groups have voiced concerns that Africans are being treated as guinea pigs for Covid-19 vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies, even though the shots have undergone human testing in multiple countries prior to being used in Africa.

Nor is the government effectively communicating about the vaccines and how they’ve been tested and reviewed so far by multiple regulatory authorities.

“For a vaccination program to be effective there is a need to have a clear and effective communication plan and that has not been the case with Zimbabwe,” said Norman Matara, secretary of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. “People do not have information regarding these vaccines and it makes them fear the unknown.”

Adding to the medical community’s worries, Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories are not only being spread by ordinary citizens on popular social media platforms, but also by religious leaders and political figures who have outsize influence.

Zimbabwean defense minister Oppah Muchinguri, who last year said Covid-19 was punishment by God to the US and its allies for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe, has expressed strong resistance to imported vaccines—even though Zimbabwe has no plans to develop a domestic vaccine.

“I am not going to take other nations’ vaccines. Why should we not have ours?” she said last month.