When Covid hit African shores in early 2020, many predicted the death toll would be much higher than in other regions, given the parlous state of the healthcare system in many countries on the continent.
But that didn’t happen, and sceptics – including journos from Western countries, where Covid deaths reached carnage proportions – attributed the lower numbers to the incompetence of African bureaucrats, which, in their view, rendered many African Covid deaths invisible, leading to their omission from official tallies.
I recall a piece penned in January this year by Ruth McLean, The New York Times’ West Africa correspondent, in which she essentially asked: How come Africa’s 54 nations combined had reported fewer deaths than France? She spoke to a government registrar in Lagos, Nigeria, who told her that bereaved families tended to avoid his office, “which was small and badly lit”, unless they required a death certificate to settle a dispute over an inheritance or get access to a pension. She then generalised this to the rest of Africa!
Others quoted in the article, published under the headline ‘A continent where the dead are not counted’, included undertakers and coffin makers, who told her there had been a spike in business since the advent of the pandemic.
To her credit, she also spoke to more credible sources, such as an infectious diseases expert at King’s College London, in the UK, and Doctors Without Borders’ West African programme manager, who derided the United Nations’ forecast in early 2020 that as many as 3.3-million Africans would succumb to Covid as “crazy predictions” and attributed the relatively low death toll to the hard lockdowns introduced by African governments from as early as March 2020. But the contribution by the Doctors Without Borders fellow was mentioned in passing, as it contradicted the subtext of the story – namely that Africans can’t be better than France and other Western countries at protecting their citizens against a raging pandemic.
I don’t understand the logic behind speaking to someone sitting in an office in London to get a sense of how Covid is panning out in Africa, while we have on this continent people who have their fingers on the pulse of the pandemic’s epidemiology. These are to be found at the Africa division of the World Health Organisation and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, for example.
Now that African countries are being hard-hit by the third wave of Covid infections – with daily cases having peaked at 33 per one-million of the population in July, compared with a peak of 28 cases per million during the second wave – will McLean be filing a piece informing the world that Africans have suddenly acquired the ability to record Covid morbidities and mortalities? I’m not holding my breath.
The sad reality is that those who get to know about Africa through newspaper reports will actually believe that we are so incompetent that we are unable to tell whether Covid is ravaging us. That’s how powerful the media can be.
As American academic Walter Lippmann said many decades ago, the media do “paint the picture in our heads”. What he meant was that what we read in the media is only a glimpse of what happens in the broader world. Thus, in Lippmann’s words, those who believe stories such as McLean’s piece on Covid in Africa will be “reacting to a pseudo- environment” where only a limited number of issues – or angles – are covered at the expense of many others.
This is akin to ‘the single story’ – the often-incorrect assumptions that are based on viewing an issue from only one perspective – about which I wrote a couple of weeks back.
In short, this is biased reporting, and it’s not okay.