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Covid-19 conspiracy theories amongst black groups: The case of Zimbabwe



“A DISEASE that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs,” Chinua Achebe,1964.
A United Kingdom-based friend of mine who works in the National Health Service (NHS) sent me this message: “My Mom said she will not be taking the vaccine despite her being in the vulnerable age group. She said you guys will die if you take the vaccine”.

This statement is quite common nationally and more so within black minority ethnic (BME) groups and on social media. This short article is going to explore religious and cultural influences, as well as conspiracy theories, and their impact on Covid-19 vaccine uptake.

Individuals from an African background who emigrate to other countries are often saddled with cultural and religious appendages when it comes to decision making. This is particularly true in crisis situations. This can be a death, illness, or misfortune, among other things.

Culture is simply the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. These can change with space and time. Culture covers such themes as totems, respect, marriage ceremonies, inheritance, and so forth.

For example, the Zimbabwean roora/lobola custom was originally symbolic and meant to foster relations and redistribute wealth between families when it was originally started.

However, there is a different context within contemporary society and the custom may be on its way out. There are plenty of other examples one can find, of customs or beliefs that have changed over time.

In contemporary Zimbabwean culture, I have not detected anything that says one should not be taking the vaccine.

Religion however is a belief in a deity and is influenced by where you were born, who raised you, and what have you been exposed to. In the Zimbabwean context, Christian evangelism is the dominant religion at the moment although Catholic, Methodist and Anglican used to be main churches.

There are other significant local religious sects called mapositori who traditionally shunned modern medicine already. The Covid-19 vaccine is therefore a big no for this group together with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

According to Prooijen and Douglas (2019) in their paper on conspiracy theories, these theories are born out of crisis situations. If communities and individuals are fearful, cannot explain a phenomenon, there is uncertainty or a new threat, conspiracies emerge to make sense of the situation.

In addition, when conspiracy theories are crystalised within the psyche of communities, they can influence historical narratives and feed into cultural appendages. That is why personally I squirm whenever someone says “I am doing this and that because it’s my culture!”.

Some of these cultural beliefs have often had dubious and questionable beginnings. There are many examples within the Zimbabwean context. When cars were introduced in Zimbabwe, legend was if you sat on the tarmac you would develop get boils….unoita mota! The initial idea being to advise people not to sit on the road otherwise you might get run over.

There are also plenty other stories about witches. Legend has it that if a witchdoctor picks up your footprint mark, they will own you, and can do whatever they chant and instruct the spirits to do to you.

Another poignant example is the tragic murder of seven-year-old Tapiwa Makore for body parts apparently to turn around business fortunes.

These kind of murders are frequent in Zimbabwe and have never been documented properly or proven to work.

The truth is they do not work. However, a lot of people in Zimbabwe believe this. Not everything that one believes is necessarily factual.

I did have to ask myself one day why Zimbabwean witches never fly to London to rob a bank or even skip the border to South Africa! Simple answer is they cannot, and no one can fly unless they have the requisite plane, pod, or helicopter to do so.

Back to Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories. What are people saying on social media and WhatsApp groups? There are people who believe that the vaccine will alter people’s DNA, vaccines are being used to implant microchips in people, ir that it is a Bill Gates ploy to control population expansion, and that people will die from the vaccine.

These are also the same theories repeated by “Prophet” Makandiwa in a recent video. Makandiwa also made ludicrous claims that the vaccine will contain the mark of the beast, cause poverty, and alter people’s DNA.

Makandiwa was recently photographed with President Emmerson Mnangagwa without a mask on. What does this mean in terms of the ordinary population perception of the vaccine? Does the President subscribe to Makandiwa’s views? How much does what the latter says or does is fed into the national discourse? The government has previously declared Makandiwa as a true man of God!

These claims are without foundation and are as ludicrous as Makandiwa’s other “miracles” which include removing foreign objects from the body, instant weight loss, healing paraplegics, curing HIV, reversing cancer, and amputations, etc.

None of his miracles and those of other “prophets” have been subjected to scientific rigour and most of them have been debunked.

What would have been useful for Makandiwa and other “prophets” would be to patent their cures so they can be used in worldwide treatments of various ailments. The reason that they cannot do that is simply that their “miracles” are merely shtick, gimmicks.

A few people have also been sceptical in regard to the fast-track pace at which the vaccine was developed.

The explanation for that is that technological development has made that possible in terms of analysis and data collection etc.

I should also remind everyone that if we can detect Covid-19 in 30 minutes through a PCR test, then surely we can develop a vaccine in record time.

So how were the various vaccines developed? Here is the science part! There are currently two main vaccines currently under distribution and administration: the Pfizer-BioNTech Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine. My university, incidentally, is making the Pfizer one.

There are also others coming through, such as AstraZeneca’s, Janssen’s and Novavax’s. These can be whole virus, nucleic acid-based, viral factor, or subunitto and most fall into this category. These vaccines are mRNA-based.

The coronavirus has 29 main proteins; the one found on the outer side is called the spike protein which infects the healthy cell in the human body.

The companies who developed the vaccine looked at the genetic make-up of the spike protein and found the code that make it. They isolated the protein that codes for one of all the 29 proteins that becomes the vaccine.

When this vaccine is injected into a human being, the body initiates an immune response which recognises and destroys the virus.

The body is also going to remember the code of the new vaccine and will send the information to our lymphatic system which is composed of B-cells and T-cells. The B-cells make antibodies against the antigen.

The T-cells are going to be on the lookout for the virus. So, if an individual who has been vaccinated is infected with Covid-19, the T-cells are going to recognise the virus.

The antibodies that the body has produced are going to bind with the antigen present in the Covid-19 and direct the virus to be destroyed (by B-cells) before infecting cells. More information on how the vaccine was developed is found here.

So, there is no microchip inserted, no numbers, no genetic material inserted, no pig foetus liquid, and no DNA changed. In addition, there is a host of other diseases which people have been vaccinated against which include measles, chicken pox, hepatitis, flu, and HPV, among others.

However, as human bodies, our diet and health history vary; different people might have different response to any vaccine. It is therefore undeniable that there might be risks.

However, the benefits outweigh the risks. Some of the scepticism in taking the vaccine might be understandable due to the history of some drugs which were purportedly developed through unethical experimentation on ethnic minorities.

However, I was joking with my friends recently that in Zimbabwe men go and buy dubious and unproven stuff for erectile dysfunction at Mbare musika, but would not take a vaccine to save their own lives!

In conclusion, vaccines for Covid-19, in my view, are safe and science has managed to solve one conundrum that has affected society like various other diseases. Some cultural and religious beliefs will affect the uptake of the vaccine by BME groups.

There have been arguments in some quarters that politicians should take the vaccine first. I do not think it is fair as they have not developed the vaccine; scientists did.

Politicians should not be the first to get the vaccine either as they are not frontline workers. Most countries are starting with healthcare staff and other frontline workers.

Lastly, it was disappointing to note that the Pfizer CE  Albert Bourla, has not taken the vaccine, citing that he is not at risk.

I think he should take it to instil confidence, after all when they came out with viagra, I might speculate, he might have been in the first in the queue to sample it!

About the writer: Silika is a Zimbabwean researcher currently based in the United Kingdom. He is a former policeman and has a PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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