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Opinions of Saturday, 23 May 2020

Columnist: Isaac Ato Mensah

Is Afua Hirsch about to join the apologists?


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In an article titled “Why are Africa’s coronavirus successes being overlooked?” Afua Hirsch, the Guardian columnist, selected Senegal and Ghana as best practice examples for the management of the Coronavirus pandemic.

She wrote on Thursday about work on a possible USD1 test kit from Senegal that should use saliva or antibodies versus a 250 pound sterling test kit in the UK that uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test for the novel coronavirus.

And in the case of Ghana, she referenced pool testing in which multiple blood samples are tested and then followed up as individual tests only if a positive result is found.

The time honored and appropriate protocol is that scientific work should simply be written up, formally submitted for peer review and then published when accepted.

Why should it be any different for Africa?

Hirsch’s “opinion” on “Africa’s Coronavirus successes being overlooked” is therefore unclear.

Senegal should simply develop their kit and submit their results, and it will be subjected to peer review, and possible publication, not so?

Or we are to accept the story in it’s current form simply because we are Africans?

And second, as for Ghana innovating a pool test, that is not a fact.

We are only utilising a well known technique which is good if the formal results are validated on peer review and published.

Indeed Hirsch’s view that the UK should adopt pool testing may not apply because of important differences in caseload from Ghana.

Furthermore, her mention of the Madagascar tonic is also unhelpful.

What is the point of highlighting crack pot assertions and behavior of high public officials; claims that are not backed by science or are we to give them a pass because the officials are African?

In two contrasting TED Talks videos, Daniel Kraft (Medicine’s Future? There’s an app for that; April 2011) and Toby Shapshak (You don’t need an app for that; June 2013), both argued about healthcare innovations, with the former touting innovations in digital healthcare solutions as global progress and the latter, giving an African narrative of explaining away the problems of Africa as “innovation” for “real problems”.

For example, in the Shapshak narrative, he references the software developed by Ghanaian Bright Simons that zaps fake medicines, and literally raps his audience into accepting that “some people might spend their entire salaries on fake drugs” and therefore when you buy any medication, you should scratch off some code and send an SMS to verify if it is fake; and “it tells you that it is legitimate or it is expired, really simple”.

Well, we are not at all impressed.

Why are fake medicines an intractable problem in Ghana and Nigeria and India when preventative solutions are available?

Our inept public officials and manufacturers who allow local production and importation of fake medicines should all have been in jail by now, shouldn’t they, according to our laws?

For how long are the significant number of illiterate folk going to scratch medicine packets and figure out expiry dates and batch numbers and manufacturers’ details?

And then what should they do when they actually need the medicine but the market is inundated with the fakes?

Today, such stories are being grafted onto university courses as innovations – part of the “African narrative”.

Should African students choose to defend and highlight the “African” narrative because they are Africans?

Again, take malaria. As my mentor will say: “Those countries in Africa, Europe and elsewhere that have eliminated malaria, did they use a vaccine?

Why are you telling me about an interesting clinical malaria research paper when the knowledge for eradication has existed for at least 50 years?”

We emphatically reject such “Africa is different” narratives.

Africa is the birthplace of science and mathematics and engineering and jurisprudence…..and civilization.

We should never ask for nor accept a special dispensation for noncompliance and non-conformity with regards to anything scientific.

Hirsch’s article tells us nothing important. It strikes the wrong chords.

It is of no value to those who are so invested in African excellence such that, “only the best is good enough for Africa”.

As the African sages said, “If you are known to be serious, no one can sell you a cow with a bad eye”; and we all certainly know the more colorful African-American rendition of this saying.

Let us never forget, “Whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

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