By Rose Mukonyo

Many conspiracy theories have been expressed in a bid to explain the novel coronavirus in Africa and more so in Kenya. Here are the top 3 conspiracy theories making rounds in Africa in the wake of Covid-19 global pandemic.

Covid-19 signifies the end times?

Topping the list is the myth that SARS-CoV-2 signifies the end times. This has gotten additional attention because it is coupled with a rumor that a possible vaccine would be infused with a microchip carrying what the Bible references as an anti-Christ number, and no one would able to buy or sell without it.

This has created great resistance to efforts being made by African scientists working on a possible vaccine, which offers potentially the best solution to allowing life and the economy to restart during the global pandemic.

Myths surrounding the vaccine have been doing rounds on social media in Africa and beyond, specifically targeting research funded by Bill Gates. Conspiracists believe the Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation wants to use a vaccination program to implant digital microchips that will somehow track and control people. 

Vaccination is not a new term to Kenyans. At birth, every Kenyan child is required to get the BCG jab, a mark we proudly bear on our left outer arm as well as the anti-polio vaccine. This has seen the nation kick out polio. Additionally, after a while, the government rolls out a fresh immunization schedule of children under five years just to make sure there is no recurrence of this killer disease, to a point of going from door to door just to make sure each child gets the vaccine. As the child grows, one has to get several other vaccines, including jabs against tetanus, among others.

On Friday 24th April 2020, Fergus Walsh, the BBC medical correspondent, said that a prototype vaccine against Covid-19 was developed in under three months by the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford. Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, led the pre-clinical research, and the first human trials have already begun on volunteers in the UK.

Walsh said Oxford University researchers have also been working on vaccines to combat malaria. Following the clinical trials under way in the UK, one option might be to move to phase II trials into Kenya where the epidemic of the coronavirus will be on the rise. He said the prototype is shown to produce a strong antibody response, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to protection.   

This latest development might remind people of the outrage that greeted a recent suggestion by two French scientists that a vaccine trial should start in Africa, given the lack of facilities and health support system. The WHO chief, in responding to the topic, slammed the scientists for what he said were racist remarks that smudged of a hangover from colonialism. Most Africans, key among them being religious leaders, demanded their governments not accept any such trials.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta on his press briefing on 25th April stated categorically that no pact had been entered into with the British scientists or any other scientists in the world to have the first human trial done in Kenya. But he was, however, careful to point out that Kenyan scientists working at KEMRI Research Centre and at Kenya Primates Research Centre have been working closely with other researchers around the world in search of a possible vaccine and if there would be any need to conduct such tests in Kenya, done by the local researchers, then the public would be duly notified and advised accordingly.

It must also be pointed out that the reason vaccine trials could be more appropriate for an African country, ill-advised comments by French doctors notwithstanding, is that these nations would be at an earlier stage of the epidemic and therefore better able to prove whether or not the trial vaccine offers protection. These studies do not work if the virus has already been controlled by other measures and is no longer circulating widely.

Covid-19 is not real

Fear about the vaccine is not the only myth currently circulating in Kenya. A section of Africans believe that Covid-19 is not real and that this is a plan by the Chinese government to rule the world by bringing the global economy to its knees and in doing so bring forth the New World Order. This myth that coronavirus is not real has been whispered even in hospital corridors, leading to reluctance in observing the laid down strategies, especially the night curfew. Several people have been arrested for drinking in bars, including the elites and some political leaders in Kenya.

People also have been arrested trying to cross the county borders after the government cordoned off some counties, including Nairobi and the coastal region counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale, which are considered hotspots, meaning these people do not see the danger in going in and out of these counties.

This measure has been taken by many African countries in a bid to flatten the infection curve on the continent. But sadly, if enough people start to believe that Covid-19 is not a real virus, they will stop trusting scientific authorities and governments trying to curb the pandemic. They may even contribute to its spread if they cease obeying social distancing and quarantine measures.

5G aids in spread of coronavirus

New technology has always faced great resistance from the masses, with many claiming that it has adverse health risks. The launch of 5G, the fifth generation technology standard for cellular networks, is not any different.

The central allegation seems to be that 5G radiofrequency communications have a damaging health impact, and that either these are directly making people sick (i.e. Covid-19 doesn’t exist and people are actually suffering from 5G effects) or the radiation is depressing peoples’ immune systems and therefore making them more likely to suffer from the virus.

These conspiracies have taken hold in Africa, especially now that Kenya has launched 4G Google Loon in a bid to boost its connectivity.

The Google Loon and Telkom Kenya partnership will allow people from all corners of the country to continue learning through accessing soft copy teaching materials and assignments. Loon’s solution works by beaming Internet connectivity from ground stations to a balloon 20km overhead. Signals are then sent across multiple balloons, creating a network of floating cell towers that deliver connectivity directly to a user’s LTE-enabled device below.

President Kenyatta said that these balloons will carry 4G base stations and have the capacity to provide wider signal coverage, an intervention which will enable Kenya to retain her competitive advantage in ICT and innovation in the midst of the current crisis.

Before the presidential announcement on this effort, there had been numerous concerns expressed by general citizens about the loons, with some alleging that the 4G had traces of 5G and would therefore be the ones spreading the virus in Kenya.

The origin of this conspiracy theory is probably the fact that 5G and other radiofrequency communications involve radiation, which for many is a scary word reminiscent of Chernobyl, the atomic bomb and cancer. However, only the upper part of the electromagnetic spectrum, with the shortest-wavelength frequencies (from the edge of UV, through X-rays and gamma radiation) are “ionizing,” meaning they can break apart molecular bonds and therefore damage DNA.

Non-ionizing radiation, which includes the rest of the spectrum, from UV through visible light, to infrared, microwave and radio waves, has wavelengths that are too long to be able to strip electrons from atoms. Therefore, they cannot damage living organisms in the same way as X-rays or gamma radiation. In other words, it’s physically impossible for microwaves to cause cancer or other health problems in the same way that gamma rays do.

Debunking Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories arise because people want simple explanations for complex and frightening events. More importantly, conspiracies have a reassuring function psychologically because they make people feel that someone — even though they may be evil — is in control of events, rather than accepting the harsh reality of disorder and chaos. And most conspiracy theories make the believers feel clever, as if they are the only ones who understand what is really going on.

According to academic communications experts Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, if people are made aware of the flawed reasoning found in conspiracy theories, they may become less vulnerable to such theories. This ironically is a bit like a vaccine against misinformation.