It is now common and also in the public domain that, there are certain entitlements and privileges which accrue to us by virtue of us being human; these entitlements have been commonly called universal, fundamental or human rights. Among the myriad of human rights that we have is the ever illustrious ‘freedom of expression’. This right is not by any means complex; even the most immature of minds can lightly or readily comprehend its constituents and possibly the aftermath of its violation.
Freedom of expression means or includes the right to have ones thoughts known, to disseminate them, also the right to receive and be given information of whatever sort. Information has been hailed in most parts of the world as the lifeblood and the oxygen for any mature and responsible democracy. In the western world and other mature democracies of the world there has risen talk and endorsement of freedom of information and laws and their implications.
Customarily governments conduct their business in utmost and dire secrecy. It did not come as a shock to discover that among a legion of epithets in different languages used to describe government, there is in Swahili a word referring to government that means deep/fierce secrecy.
The ordinary person seldom knows what is deliberated upon in those dreadful corridors and high offices. The little that he knows is the bread crumbs that the pressman divulges to him after trying with extra-human effort to solicit and extract information from those who are at the helms of power, its supposed custodians.
Should it occur that a certain soul charged with the mandate of keeping ‘confidential’ government information decides to whisper its contents into the ears of his neighbor, his fate would have by then been long decided upon, judgment upon him will be swift, he shall be a castaway, an abomination to those who once entrusted their lives to him. How pitiable!
This culture, like a warm and humid environment for germs, is a perfect breeding place for a specie of a pathogen; which is reputed for sucking the life out of even the once glorious mighty democracies and models of good governance, it does not stop at the command of the faithful few zealots, who profess knowledge in good governance, the Rule of Law and Constitutionalism, it is a trailblazer in its path, only full disclosure will rid government and its various permutations of this horrid and dangerously cancerous creature commonly known as corruption. Corruption, not only breeds and grows in secrecy, it thrives and forges against all odds in secrecy.
These remarks do not stand in isolation and have been raised in international fora. The UN Standards recognise the need for both measures to inform the public about their right to information and to “to address the problem of a culture of secrecy within Government”. Commonwealth Principle 2 recognises this as a positive need, namely to “promote a culture of openness”.
The Joint Declaration of the special mandates calls on the government to “take active steps to address the culture of secrecy that still prevails in many countries within the public sector”. It also calls for steps to be taken “to promote broad public awareness of the access to information law” and generally for “the allocation of necessary resources and attention” to ensure proper implementation of the right to information laws.
Progressive democracies have therefore in light of the discontent arising from the governed attributed to the continued secrecy of government affairs, ventured out to enact Freedom of Information laws (FOI). The move by these select forerunning countries is intended to sensitize governments and citizens alike that information from every sector of the government; be it from the Judiciary, Executive and or the Legislature should be decentralized and disclosed to any concerned or interested member of the public at their request.
The purpose of such initiative being also to state further that governmental information of whatever nature does not belong to those who govern alone as they are but mere custodians, but that it also belongs to the governed, that the former also have an inherent right to know and have access to such information recognizing that if such access is granted to them they will have a meaningful participation in national issues and projects of national concern.
Also reminding those who hold the reins that age old Jefferson mantra that, government is by the people for the people and none should ever think of himself as having some sort of ownership over any of it sectors. This has in its spirit the enduring and inescapable need for public oversight of public institutions.
It is from these premises that Freedom of Information laws gained their prominence. In our hearing these propositions sound almost preposterous and one may hasten to dismiss us as overly imaginative and ambitious. It is after this discourse that we hope that the ordinary man eating tripe and fat cakes at the main mall will know of his right to governmental information, it is hoped that analogies will help whosoever may read of the need for us as the Republic of Botswana to have our own FOI law.
Entitlements (Executive and Public Bodies)
Today when government officials, say the Executive conduct their meetings and there pass or adopt resolutions on certain upcoming national projects, the ordinary Motswana cannot and will not under any circumstances know why those projects were approved. This is so because those deliberations are more often than not, classified and shrouded in deep secrecy. It is often a possibility that in those deliberations there were some dissenting voices and reasons for whatsoever resolution.
Under an FOI law, one is entitled to write a request to the appropriate officer to be granted access to the deliberations of Cabinet and know why that particular decision was adopted by Cabinet. In this way there can be a control on dangers such as insider trading by ministers, particularly those who have business interests as most of them in Botswana do.
With such a law the public can be rest assured that no minister can use information on tenders to his own enrichment (as some stand accused), to the detriment of the ordinary Motswana and later turn to state that they also as Batswana is also entitled to tender and share in the wealth of the country like us all. That being a clear case of conflict of interest and duty which arises from the fact they are not ordinary Batswana, but custodians of certain pieces of information which come into his possession by virtue of his high office.
Further on, with the advent of an FOI law other public bodies will be rendered duty bound to disclose and or to publish the contents of their deliberations, this requisition comes up in FOI laws of other countries and International standards. The UN Standards, for example, state that Freedom of information implies that public bodies publish and disseminate widely documents of significant public interest, for example, operational information about how the public body functions and the content of any decision or policy affecting the public. Briefly put an FOI law in Botswana would entitle us to information from our various public bodies.
If ones seek to know why a certain company in which a minister is a Director continues for a disturbing number of years to win tenders, they as a citizen or even a non citizen like in other countries; will be entitled access to the contents of the PPADB minutes which awarded those tenders, to get the rationale, and the decision to award. Today when the pressman darkens the Board Secretary’s door he’ll be fed useless and shallow bread crumbs when he seeks to know what informed the decision of the Board to continuously award tenders to a single company.
It is now a matter of public knowledge that administrative governmental procedures were brutally violated to procure funds set for disasters in establishing the now notorious spy agency DIS. Who really abused the said procedures? What did they do that they ought to have not? Members of the public are only left to wonder why the agency was against all odds hurriedly established.
Were there no other effective agencies before the arrival of DIS? What of Special Branch? Was it ineffective to combat other forms of advanced crime? Who recommended its eradication to give way to DIS? Was a consultant involved to compile a report on the state of our national security? Was the report one to debate in Parliament? Is it worthwhile that the public be left in the dark? Can’t a disclosure to them be more beneficial than any risk that may ensure from not knowing what is in the said report?
These matters which present themselves for determination are not mere yappery but are deep seated questions which need be addressed lest government continues even further to act in reckless abandon and in the end unleashing upon the citizenry. This concern must be even seriously considered in dealing with such a powerful and loaded institution like the Executive. No wonder in the US FOI law focuses more on disclosure of information by the Executive.
Legislature, Judiciary etal
Parliament sessions are generally open to the public, but the common man should not forget while sited in that air-conditioned pristine environment, that while on those grounds he is deem a stranger by the very law enacted, by persons he voted into power who is there at the mercy of the Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly.
She may, by powers vested in her clear the public attendage and bar the doors. Behind those doors the law making body may then deliberate and those deliberations will ever remain secret until they are rendered useless by lapse of time then disclosed.
The contents of those debates of will forever be shut from public perusal, we ordinary men will be left wondering what the people we voted to power were deliberating upon in our absence. An FOI law if it be adopted shall entitle the citizen to petition the relevant officer to be granted access into those records of Parliament that she is desirous to peruse.
In terms of FOI law principles which will be dealt with in another installment of this article; only limited exceptions to access to information are allowed, that is to say in some instances even national security considerations will not pass unless they are brought under serious scrutiny to see if the need for the public to know overshadows to a great extent the risks that may ensue from the disclosure.
In the Judiciary where the business of judging and interpretation of laws is carried out, the public is normally allowed to sit in and observe justice in administration; this is in accordance with the principle of fair and open justice also with the undying need for public oversight of government.
The pressman enjoys coverage of all matters that he is allowed to attend as a member of the public; he may also with the permission of the Registrar and or the Court bring his cameras into the court room and capture those sacred moments. However if the proceedings be in camera like those deemed to be so sensitive as to not qualify for public consumption, the citizen can only fantasize about what was deliberated upon.
In other matters such as the appointment of judges of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal the ordinary man only learns from his neighbour that His Excellency the President is the one who appoints judges of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal acting in accordance with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission. He is left clueless and is sent to sea as to what those mysterious characters on the Commission may have said or opined to warrant the endorsement or appointment of a particular person to the Bench.
To him these matters are a ‘holy cow’ he even fears to imagine what the members of the Commission may have said to motivate their case before His Excellency. Why shouldn’t the ordinary Motswana be informed on matters that affect him personally? Shouldn’t he know what was said of the man who will later adjudicate upon his case?
Will the knowledge not give him a sense of ownership in his government? Can this practice of deep concealment guarantee these structures insulation against nepotism, politicization personalization and manipulation? Is it not disclosure of their affairs that would insulate them from these evils or worse? Without such antecedents the contribution of the citizen to the good governance of his Republic can never be meaningful.
In a not so distant past a number of High Court judges left the bench. The powers that be were shockingly tight lipped as to what necessitated the departure of those judges. It is said that judges enjoy the most awesome treatment in most matters which we ordinary men cannot attain.
From this background one is left but to wonder as to what may cause one to leave such gracious and plump place like the bench. No report was published by the Registrar to the public as to why they left; any publication by the pressman speculating on their reasons of departure was hastingly dismissed by him as untrue, ill-founded and not worthy of publication. That was how far he could go. With all fairness to the man, how could he possibly go any farther? He is not obliged, only FOI law will place upon him this heavy burden to disclose.
In the wake of major cases such as Kalafatis’ case, CMS case, Nchindo’s case and Kgafela’s case two major public figures were appointed to the High Court bench namely Regional Magistrate Lot Moroka who as he then was presided over the case and Director of Public Prosecutions Leatile Dambe who in that capacity prosecuted the case.
That the duo is competent and qualifies and are worthy of the appointment they now enjoy admits of no argument. But one is left to wonder, didn’t this appointment affect matters which already handled by these officers? Had they have sufficiently completed the said matters when their time to ascend to the bench came? Was it not appropriate to appoint them after such matters were truly and clearly acted upon by them?
These questions are only natural to the common man; his rescue from wonder and misery lies with a Freedom of Information Act, which law will grant him the right and entitlement to governmental information and would have the opportunity to read even further why some decisions are taken. We only hope that such an Act will not as is proposed in South Africa limit access but allow access to information.
Leonard Sechele became the DPP, he succeeding Leatile Dambe, (who established herself then as a Prosecutor of renown) it is said that the former was legal counsel of the spy agency. The Law Society of Botswana pleaded no knowledge to these set of facts.
Shocking it was! Why Sechele? Did he pass as the most able person in matters of prosecution? Would his prior involvement with the embattled and much resented DIS not compromise his objectivity when he is called upon to inherit the files of Mma Dambe who had already initiated prosecution against some of DIS officers or when he is seized with new matters involving his former colleagues at DIS? What informed the highest office in coming to such a decision? It is in the minds of many to know why the most immediate officer at DPP was not appointed to the seat of the national prosecutor.
Truly a myriad of questions would not find their answers; it is in these circumstances that the author is bold enough to state that Botswana needs an FOI law which is in his opinion long overdue. Procrastination, sitting and only wishing that certain things could not happen in our beautiful Botswana is only suicide. There is need for Parliament to act now and avert even worse dangers. Time has never been so opportune for Botswana to adopt such a law.
Other entities in information
Professional bodies such as Botswana Health Professional, Council of Nurses and Midwives, Botswana institute of Accounts, Association of Engineers and all the related shall all come under scrutiny or are they not some sort of a bodies entrusted to see to some interests of the public? The rumors that when a member of the public reports one of their colleagues for dishonorable and unethical conduct, the report is hurriedly brushed aside and not thoroughly considered would all come into the open with advent of a Freedom of Information law because it and only it will not countenance damaging secrecy.
In other Jurisdictions, persons; both natural and juristic, are allowed to have access to government records and archives which contain information about them, they can correct and edit information about themselves; the law obliges them to state matters which are confirmed truth. This is for the simple reason that this way crime can be combated easily as the State will know who to look for and where. Further this gives the citizen a sense of security, belongingness and ownership. He would feel that the government is surely looking to his interests not its own interests or the interests of another to his detriment.
If there are private companies which have courted government on national projects such as the construction of roads, buildings, or any joint partnership that government has any company; the public will as a rule and a principle of FOI law be entitled to access the particulars of such agreements and memorandums. This way you can know the terms under which the public school that your child will go to was built.
The culture of serial prohibitionism, gagging and reckless intimidation by the present government, through certain objectionable Forms to be signed under the clout of national security that now prevails in government enclave needs to cease, but it is only by virtue of an FOI law that these utterly disturbing matters can be tackled. Should we as a nation fail in this regard then we might as well forget about the having a public with unremitting vigilance and oversight of government action, then we should relegate our victory against corruption to fairy tales having no place in real and modern society.
The 490-hectare campus researches the world’s deadliest pathogens, including Anthrax (in 1944, the Roosevelt administration ordered 1 million anthrax bombs from Fort Detrick), Ebola, smallpox, and … you guessed right: coronaviruses. The facility, which carries out paid research projects for government agencies (including the CIA), universities and drug companies most of whom owned by the highly sinister military-industrial complex, employs 900 people.
Between 1945 and 1969, the sprawling complex (which has since become the US’s ”bio-defence centre” to put it mildly) was the hub of the US biological weapons programme. It was at Fort Detrick that Project MK Ultra, a top-secret CIA quest to subject the human mind to routine robotic manipulation, a monstrosity the CIA openly owned up to in a congressional inquisition in 1975, was carried out. In the consequent experiments, the guinea pigs comprised not only of people of the forgotten corner of America – inmates, prostitutes and the homeless but also prisoners of war and even regular US servicemen.
These unwitting participants underwent up to a 20-year-long ordeal of barbarous experiments involving psychoactive drugs (such as LSD), forced electroshocks, physical and sexual abuses, as well as a myriad of other torments. The experiments not only violated international law, but also the CIA’s own charter which forbids domestic activities. Over 180 doctors and researchers took part in these horrendous experiments and this in a country which touts itself as the most civilised on the globe!
Was the coronavirus actually manufactured at Fort Detrick (like HIV as I shall demonstrate at the appropriate time) and simply tactfully patented to other equally cacodemonic places such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China?
THE FORT DETRICK SCIENTISTS’ PROPHECY WAS WELL-INFORMED
About two years before the term novel coronavirus became a familiar feature in day-to-day banter, two scientist cryptically served advance warning of its imminence. They were Allison Totura and Sina Bavari, both researchers at Fort Detrick.
The two scientists talked of “novel highly pathogenic coronaviruses that may emerge from animal reservoir hosts”, adding, “These coronaviruses may have the potential to cause devastating pandemics due to unique features in virus biology including rapid viral replication, broad host range, cross-species transmission, person-to-person transmission, and lack of herd immunity in human populations … Associated with novel respiratory syndromes, they move from person-to-person via close contact and can result in high morbidity and mortality caused by the progression to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).”
All the above constitute some of the documented attributes and characteristics of the virus presently on the loose – the propagator of Covid-19. A recent clinical review of Covid-19 in The Economist seemed to bear out this prognostication when it said, “It is ARDS that sees people rushed to intensive-care units and put on ventilators”. As if sounding forth a veritable prophecy, the two scientists besought governments to start working on counter-measures there and then that could be “effective against such a virus”.
Well, it was not by sheer happenstance that Tortura and Bavari turned out to have been so incredibly and ominously prescient. They had it on good authority, having witnessed at ringside what the virus was capable of in the context of their own laboratory. The gory scenario they painted for us came not from secondary sources but from the proverbial horse’s mouth folks.
CDC’S RECKLESS ADMISSION
In March this year, Robert Redfield, the US Director for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee that it had transpired that some members of the American populace who were certified as having died of influenza turned out to have harboured the novel coronavirus per posthumous analysis of their tissue.
Redfield was not pressed to elaborate but the message was loud and clear – Covid-19 had been doing the rounds in the US much earlier than it was generally supposed and that the extent to which it was mistaken for flu was by far much more commonplace than was openly admitted. An outspoken Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, seized on this rather casual revelation and insisted that the US disclose further information, exercise transparency on coronavirus cases and provide an explanation to the public.
But that was not all the beef Zhao had with the US. He further charged that the coronavirus was possibly transplanted to China by the US: whether inadvertently or by deliberate design he did not say. Zhao pointed to the Military World Games of October 2019, in which US army representatives took part, as the context in which the coronavirus irrupted into China. Did the allegation ring hollow or there was a ring of truth to it?
THE BENASSIE FACTOR
The Military World Games, an Olympic-style spectrum of competitive action, are held every four years. The 2019 episode took place in Wuhan, China. The 7th such, the games ran from October 18 to October 27. The US contingent comprised of 17 teams of over 280 athletes, plus an innumerable other staff members. Altogether, over 9000 athletes from 110 countries were on hand to showcase their athletic mettle in more than 27 sports. All NATO countries were present, with Africa on its part represented by 30 countries who included Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Besides the singular number of participants, the event notched up a whole array of firsts. One report spelt them out thus: “The first time the games were staged outside of military bases, the first time the games were all held in the same city, the first time an Athletes’ Village was constructed, the first time TV and VR systems were powered by 5G telecom technology, and the first use of all-round volunteer services for each delegation.”
Now, here is the clincher: the location of the guest house for the US team was located in the immediate neighbourhood of the Wuhan Seafood Market, the place the Chinese authorities to this day contend was the diffusion point of the coronavirus. But there is more: according to some reports, the person who allegedly but unwittingly transmitted the virus to the people milling about the market – Patient Zero of Covid-19 – was one Maatie Benassie.
Benassie, 52, is a security officer of Sergeant First Class rank at the Fort Belvoir military base in Virginia and took part in the 50-mile cycling road race in the same competitions. In the final lap, she was accidentally knocked down by a fellow contestant and sustained a fractured rib and a concussion though she soldiered on and completed the race with the agonising adversity. Inevitably, she saw a bit of time in a local health facility. According to information dug up by George Webb, an investigative journalist based in Washington DC, Benassie would later test positive for Covid-19 at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
Incidentally, Benassie apparently passed on the virus to other US soldiers at the games, who were hospitalised right there in China before they were airlifted back to the US. The US government straightaway prohibited the publicising of details on the matter under the time-honoured excuse of “national security interests”, which raised eyebrows as a matter-of-course. As if that was not fishy enough, the US out of the blue tightened Chinese visas to the US at the conclusion of the games.
The rest, as they say, is history: two months later, Covid-19 had taken hold on China territory. “From that date onwards,” said one report, “one to five new cases were reported each day. By December 15, the total number of infections stood at 27 — the first double-digit daily rise was reported on December 17 — and by December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60.”
TWO CURIOUS RESEARCH HALTINGS
Is it a coincidence that all the US soldiers who fell ill at the Wuhan games did their preparatory training at the Fort Belvoir military base, only a 15-minutes’ drive from Fort Detrick?
That Fort Detrick is a plain-sight perpetrator of pathogenic evils is evidenced by a number of highly suspicious happenings concerning it. Remember the 2001 anthrax mailing attacks on government and media houses which killed five people right on US territory? The two principal suspects who puzzlingly were never charged, worked as microbiologists at Fort Detrick. Of the two, Bruce Ivins, who was the more culpable, died in 2008 of “suicide”. For “suicide”, read “elimination”, probably because he was in the process of spilling the beans and therefore cast the US government in a stigmatically diabolical light. Indeed, the following year, all research projects at Fort Detrick were suspended on grounds that the institute was “storing pathogens not listed in its database”. The real truth was likely much more reprehensible.
In 2014, there was a mini local pandemic in the US which killed thousands of people and which the mainstream media were not gutsy enough to report. It arose following the weaponisation at Fort Detrick of the H7N9 virus, prompting the Obama administration to at once declare a moratorium on the research and withdraw funding.
The Trump administration, however, which has a pathological fixation on undoing practically all the good Obama did, reinstated the research under new rigorous guidelines in 2017. But since old habits die hard, the new guidelines were flouted at will, leading to another shutdown of the whole research gamut at the institute in August 2019. This, nonetheless, was not wholesale as other areas of research, such as experiments to make bird flu more transmissible and which had begun in 2012, proceeded apace. As one commentator pointedly wondered aloud, was it really necessary to study how to make H5N1, which causes a type of bird flu with an eye-popping mortality rate, more transmissible?
Consistent with its character, the CDC was not prepared to furnish particulars upon issuing the cease and desist order, citing “national security reasons”. Could the real reason have been the manufacture of the novel coronavirus courtesy of a tip-off by the more scrupulous scientists?
President Mokgweetsi Masisi may have breathed a huge sigh of relief when he emerged victorious in last year’s 2019 general elections, but the ultimate test of his presidency has only just begun.
From COVID-19 pandemic effects; disenchanted unemployed youth, deteriorating diplomatic relations with neighbouring South Africa as well as emerging instability within the ruling party — Masisi has a lot to resolve in the next few years.
Last week we started an unwanted cold war with Botswana’s main trade partner, South Africa, in what we consider an ill-conceived move. Never, in the history of this country has Botswana shown South Africa a cold shoulder – particularly since the fall of the apartheid regime.
It is without a doubt that our country’s survival depends on having good relations with South Africa. As the Chairperson of African National Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe once said, a good relationship between Botswana and South Africa is not optional but necessary.
No matter how aggrieved we feel, we should never engage in a diplomatic war — with due respect to other neighbours— with South Africa. We will never gain anything from starting a diplomatic war with South Africa.
In fact, doing so will imperil our economy, given that majority of businesses in the retail sector and services sector are South African companies.
Former cabinet minister and Phakalane Estates proprietor, David Magang once opined that Botswana’s poor manufacturing sector and importation of more than 80 percent of the foodstuffs from South Africa, effectively renders Botswana a neo-colony of the former.
Magang’s statement may look demeaning, but that is the truth, and all sorts of examples can be produced to support that. Perhaps it is time to realise that as a nation, we are not independent enough to behave the way we do. And for God’s sake, we are a landlocked country!
Recently, the effects of COVID-19 have exposed the fragility of our economy; the devastating pleas of the unemployed and the uncertainty of the future. Botswana’s two mainstay source of income; diamonds and tourism have been hit hard. Going forward, there is a need to chart a new pathway, and surely it is not an easy task.
The ground is becoming fertile for uprisings that are not desirable in any country. That the government has not responded positively to the rising unemployment challenge is the truth, and very soon as a nation we will wake up to this reality.
The magnitude of the problem is so serious that citizens are running out of patience. The government on the other hand has not done much to instil confidence by assuring the populace that there is a plan.
The general feeling is that, not much will change, hence some sections of the society, will try to use other means to ensure that their demands are taken into consideration. Botswana might have enjoyed peace and stability in the past, but there is guarantee that, under the current circumstances, the status quo will be maintained.
It is evident that, increasingly, indigenous citizens are becoming resentful of naturalised and other foreign nationals. Many believe naturalised citizens, especially those of Indian origin, are the major beneficiaries in the economy, while the rest of the society is side-lined.
The resentfulness is likely to intensify going forward. We needed not to be heading in this direction. We needed not to be racist in our approach but when the pleas of the large section of the society are ignored, this is bound to happen.
It is should be the intention of every government that seeks to strive on non-racialism to ensure that there is shared prosperity. Share prosperity is the only way to make people of different races in one society to embrace each other, however, we have failed in this respect.
Masisi’s task goes beyond just delivering jobs and building a nation that we all desire, but he also has an immediate task of achieving stability within his own party. The matter is so serious that, there are threats of defection by a number of MPs, and if he does not arrest this, his government may collapse before completing the five year mandate.
The problems extend to the party itself, where Masisi found himself at war with his Secretary General, Mpho Balopi. The war is not just the fight for Central Committee position, but forms part of the succession plan.
If we are to go by what I can term as conventional wisdom, the coronavirus arose in China’s Hubei province in the city of Wuhan. According to the WHO, the Chinese government filed the country’s first confirmed Covid-19 case with the international health regulator on December 8, 2019, with the first case outside of China’s boarders reported in Thailand on January 13, 2020.
We now know, however, courtesy of a paper in The Lancet that was authored by doctors from Wuhan’s Jinhintan Hospital, that the first such case was logged on December 1. We have also come to learn that in point of fact, the first patient, the so-called Patient Zero, may have presented with the as yet unfathomed Covid-9 symptoms in a public health facility on November 17. This is according to a report in the South China Morning Post, which claims to have seen classified medical government reports.
The Post report says nine cases of Covid-19 sufferers, aged between 39 and 79, were attended to during the month of November alone and that a total of 266 people officially had the disease by December 31st. Clearly, the disease had been sedately circulating for some time before it exploded towards the end of the year considering that a great number of people do not present symptoms at all.
Yet the fact the disease was first announced in China and even laboratory-spawned in that country does not necessarily mean China was its veritable place of origin. It almost certainly had multiple origins and may have occurred much earlier in other places on the globe.
AMERICA’S FLU ILLNESS TSUNAMI
Unbeknownst to much of the world, Covid-19 struck in Europe and the USA about the same time it did so in China, if not much earlier, it has now emerged. This is not tabloid hogwash or simply idle gossip folks: it was reported by the highly estimable news outlets such as NBC News and The New York Times. Even Newsweek, which along with Time magazine constitute America’s leading two weekly political magazines, was adamant that the coronavirus outbreak must have occurred as early as September 2019 and that Wuhan was possibly not its birthplace as such. For some reason (or is it for partisan reasons?), the globally renowned broadcast media networks like CNN, BBC, and Sky News have chosen to self-gag on the matter.
If there’s one disease which is so notoriously recurrent and even death-dealing in the US, it is influenza – commonly referred to as the flu or common cold. Here in Africa, flu is no much of a big deal: it is so mild I personally do not know – nor have ever heard of – a single one person who died of flu. In the US, flu is some menace. For instance, in the 2017-18 season, over 61,000 deaths were linked to flu, and in the 2018-19 season, 34,200 succumbed to the disease. Every year, 10 percent of the US population, or 32 million people, contract flu, though only about 100,000 end up being hospitalised anyway.
In the US, the flu season ordinarily runs from October to May, straddling three of the country’s four-season set, namely fall (September to November), winter (December to February), and spring (March to May). The disease is particularly widespread in 16 states. Last year, the winter flu season began atypically early and with a big bang that had never been seen in 15 years according to a December 6, 2019 report by Associated Press (AP), a wire news agency. By the beginning of December or thereabouts, 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalisations, and 900 flu-related deaths had taken place.
The Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) put the number of people already dead from flu-related illnesses as of mid-March 2019 at between 29,000 and 59,000. This was in addition to the misery of hundreds of thousands of flu-related hospitalisations and millions of medical visits for flu symptoms that have raged in the course of the season. Some hospitals in New Orleans have reported the busiest patient traffic ever at their emergency departments.
Health authorities in Louisiana, which was the first to be impinged, said flu-like illnesses began to rocket in the month of October. Said the AP report: “There are different types of flu viruses, and the one causing illnesses in most parts of the country is a surprise.” Dave Osthus, a flu statistician at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was quoted as saying, “This could be a precursor to something pretty bad. But we don’t know what that is.” Well, maybe we can venture an answer to the conundrum: the flu situation was exacerbated by the coronavirus.
THE CASE OF A NEW JERSEY MAYOR
The story of Michael Mellaham, the mayor of the New Jersey city of Belleville, has been widely reported in the Western world, albeit in the comparatively fringe media houses primarily lest the finger of indictment shift from China to the US. Sometime in November last year, Mellaham came down with an ailment that presented with Covid-19-like symptoms such as aches, high fevers, chills, and a sore throat, the latter of which went on for a full month. Right at the onset of his diseased condition, Mellaham went to see his doctor, who told him not to worry as it was little more than flu and would peter out in a matter of days. The illness lingered for much longer though he at long last fought it off. It was the sickest he had ever been in his adult life.
In April this year, Mellaham took a Covid-19 test and he was found not with Covid-19 per se but its antibodies, which crystal-clearly evinced he had the disease at some stage in the recent past. This is what he told China Global Television Network (CGTN) in May: “We’re told that they (people with Covid-19-like symptoms) don’t have the flu. They just have bronchitis. They just have a bad cough or it’s a bad cold. I think that we just weren’t expecting Covid-19 then, so therefore the doctors didn’t know what to call it or what to expect.”
Of the credibility of the test he took, known as IgM (Immunoglobulin M Test), the first antibody a body makes when it fights a new infection, Mellaham said, “The IgM is the more recent antibody, which would have shown that that antibody is more recent in my system, that my body more recently fought the coronavirus.”
The first publicly admitted case of coronavirus-triggered morbidity in the US was announced in January this year and involved a Californian who had recently returned from Wuhan, but as Mellaham pointedly put it, “that doesn’t mean it wasn’t here (on US soil) before that”.
SUDDENLY “MANY PIXELS”
On May 7, 2020, The New York Times reported of two men aged 57 and 69 who died in their homes in Santa Clara, California, on February 6 and 17 respectively, and this was 23 days before the US announced its first Covid-19 fatality in Kirkland, Washington, on February 29. Their demise was attributed to flu post-mortem but it later emerged that they had been victims of the novel coronavirus. Since they had never travelled outside their community for years, they must have contracted the disease within the locality.
The Santa Clara county’s chief medical office Sarah Cody said the deaths of the two was probably the tip of the iceberg of unknown size. Dr Jeffrey Smith, the Santa Clara county executive, he too a medical doctor, opined that the coronavirus must have been spreading in California unrecognised for a long time now.
Indeed, if we take stock of the fact that passengers on board the Grand Princess cruise ship, which departed California on February 11, developed Covid-19 whilst on board, the odds certainly are that Covid-19 hit much earlier in the US than it hit the headlines. As Cody pointedly put it, “We had so few pixels you could hardly pick out the image. Suddenly, we have so many pixels all of sudden that we now realise we didn’t know what we were looking for.”
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
In Europe, a radiology research team at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Colma, France, has traced the first Covid-19 case in that country to November 16, 2019 according to reports by NBC News and The New York Times. The researchers came to this finding after examining 2500 chest X-rays taken from November 1, 2019 to April 30 this year.
French authorities declared the first Covid-19 case on January 24 having detected it in three nationals who had recently been to China, though it has now transpired that whilst one finger was point to China, four were point back at France itself.
It came to light last month that a sample taken from a French patient with pneumonia on December 27 subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus. “There’s no doubt for us it was already there in December,” Dr Yves Cohen, head of intensive care at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris, told The New York Times on May 4 this year. “It is quite possible that there were isolated cases that led to transmission chains that died down.”
Weighing in on the matter too, Michel Schmitt, who led the Albert Schweitzer Hospital research, said, “The testimonies are really rich; they show that people felt that something strange was going on, but they were not in a capacity to raise the alarm.”
THE CAMBRIDGE AND UCL FINDINGS
Meanwhile, two independent research projects by two of Britain’s premier institutions of learning have turned up evidence that Covid-19 was in Europe as early as the third quarter of 2019. Following a study to understand the historical processes that led to the Covid-19 pandemic, the University of Cambridge found that the coronavirus outbreak appears to have started between September 13 and December 7 in 2019.
The University College London’s Genetics Institute (UCL) analysed genomes from the Covid-19 virus in over 7,500 people and deduced that the pandemic must have started between October 6 and December 11 in 2019. The UCL team analysed virus genomes, using published sequences from over 7,500 people with Covid-19 across the globe. Their report, titled HYPERLINK “https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1567134820301829” \l “s0045” \t “_blank” Emergence of Genomic Diversity and Recurrent Mutations in SARS-CoV-2, was published in the May 6, 2020 edition of the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.