Did Covid-19 emanate from a really “novel” coronavirus or a fiendishly hatched up pathogen? If it is a manufactured virological weapon, in whose direction should the finger of indictment point? In a 5-part mini-series, BENSON C SAILI pronounces on the world’s most bothersome pandemic since the Spanish Flu of a century back.
On April 14, 2020, Donald Trump, the dismally shambolic US President, announced that he had instructed a relevant arm of his government to pull the plug on its share of WHO funding.
It is curious that the Don sounded off exactly 30 days after China had accused the US of purposely (or was it inadvertently?) propagating Covid-19 in the world’s second largest economy which is on course to surpass the US in only a matter of years.
In a March 13, 2020 tweet, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had charged that the US was responsible for introducing the coronavirus in the Hubei Province city of Wuhan. Zhao did not furnish nail-on-the-head particulars as to why he so supposed, but the dot-connection by many a pundit pointed to the US military personnel, who were alleged to have seeded the virus on China territory when they flew there to take part in the 2019 military games in Wuhan in October that year.
The reasons Trump advanced for withholding financial assistance to the WHO basically were that by openly endorsing China’s initial stance to play down the pervasiveness of the coronavirus spread in China, the WHO was complicit in “covering up and mismanaging the spread of the virus”.
It was ironic that Trump of all people should somersault and take issue with the WHO on the matter when he himself had stopped just short of declaring the coronavirus a non-event which would peter out sooner than later and had even heaped plaudits on President Xi Jinping for a job well-done. “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation,” Trump had gushed in one of his fixation tweets early in the year.
Clearly, it was not the WHO’s softly-softly tune on China that particularly rubbed the Don the wrong way. It was the organisation’s eyebrow-raising coziness with the reportedly second-richest man on Earth, Bill Gates.
Seemingly, Trump was incensed that only the day after Bill Gates pledged $50 million to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator – a concerted effort on the part of 12 US-based pharmaceuticals to come up with a vaccine against Covid-19 – the WHO declared the disease a pandemic, when to date it had resisted spirited urging by the “philanthropist” billionaire that it does so.
Gates, we will demonstrate in due course, has a vested interest in a possible vaccine (which had tacitly been long in the works) against the now globalwide pandemic as it is certain to send his bottom line rocketing into the stratosphere.
DID IT JUMP OR WAS SIMPLY PUSHED?
Somebody said all truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed left, right, and centre by practically everybody else. Second, it is violently opposed, with its propagator eliminated in the most extreme of cases. Third, and ironically at that, it is accepted as self-evident, as if all along it was in fact a foregone conclusion!
Ever heard of a guy called Galileo Galilei? He was a 16/17th century Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer. He was indicted and tried before the Roman Inquisition for openly, impassionedly, and repetitively affirming the Copernican theory of hundred years prior that it was Earth that revolved around the sun and not vice versa as was the brainwash belief then.
For disseminating this “heresy”, Galileo was, in a meting out of capital punishment dressed as suicide, handed a mug containing a poison called hemlock – the origin of the term “Poisoned Chalice” – in 1642, at age 77.
It took 350 years for the Vatican to at long last own up to its “error” and officially vindicate Galileo in a statement by Pope John Paul II in November 1992. In one of history’s great emblems of conflict between reason and dogma, science and faith, an otherwise great savant of science was unjustly, albeit unhurriedly, put to death for embracing what we today take for granted as unimpeachable truth.
With the advent of the dreaded “novel coronavirus”, many a percipient folk among the ranks of mankind who bravely choose to pierce the veil and isolate fact from fiction are, in a near-reprisal of Galileo’s fate, certain to burn at the stake – figuratively speaking since we live in a comparatively more restrained and less extreme age in which reckless savagery is more subtle than overt.
The popular hypothesis is that the coronavirus at issue jumped the species barrier from bats to humans by way of pangolins, in the manner HIV is said to have resided in apes before it made the apocalyptic leap into mankind’s bloodstream through “primitive” Africans with an insatiable, if not barbaric, craving for Simian flesh. I beg to differ at the risk of being labelled a propagandistic conspiracy theorist, a tag that is all too familiar in my case anyway.
WUHAN OR WAR-HAN?
Every time there is a catastrophe of sorts in some part of the word, or any such hard-to-fathom development for that matter, my inbox is deluged with pleas that I help unpack whatever conundrum it is.
I was subjected to the same barrage not very long after Covid-19 erupted in China. In heeding this call – thank you fans and friends: I value the enormous and unwavering faith you repose in me – I decided not to make haste but to bide my time given that all sorts of theories were being bandied about as to the probable cause or origin of what was soon to be a globalwide pandemic.
Covid-19 is a disease, so we’re told, that arises from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses belong to a family of viruses that ordinarily thrive in animals.
I first learnt about coronaviruses in 2002, when SARS-CoV-1 broke out in China, as though it was the preordained cradle of such Frankenstein viruses. It was the first time I heard of Foshan, a city in China’s Guangdong Province where the disease first surfaced.
And it was sometime in 2019 that I first heard of Wuhan, the birthplace, reportedly, of Covid-19, and the largest city in central China. But did Covid-19 really spring from within Wuhan or it was incubated elsewhere and then somehow transplanted to China? Or was it the result of some strategic gambit on the part of the Chinese government itself that went awry, with Xi Jinping ending up with plenty of egg on his round, mirthless face in the eyes of a relentless army of Western cynics and critics? Was it a biological war waged on China by the implacably vile, vicious, and vindictive Uncle Sam?
GENESIS IN A WET MARKET?
If reports by the forefront voices of the international media are anything to go by, the Covid-19 outbreak timeline in a nutshell unfolded as follows: Between December 12 and 29 last year, a never-seen-before flu-like illness presented in about 27 residents of Wuhan, a conurbation of three principal population centres of just under 12 million collectively.
On December 31, China informed the WHO on the existence of the outwardly inscrutable disease. The following day, the Chinese authorities ordered the closure of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a live animal and seafood market – also known as “wet markets” in that water is every now and again sloshed on produce to keep it cool and fresh – where the diseases was allegedly spawned.
On January 11, China announced its first Covid-19 fatality. The victim was a 61-year-old man who had actually succumbed to respiratory complications arising from pneumonia on January 9. The pneumonia is said to have been triggered by Covid-19, which the man supposedly contracted during one of his trips to Huanan, where, so we are given to understand, he was in the habit of stocking up with proteinaceous foodstuffs.
One report had this to say about such markets, which are a commonplace feature of Asia: “At the crack of dawn every day, ‘wet markets’ in China and across Asia come to life, with stall owners touting their wares such as fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices in an open-air setting …
“The now-infamous Wuhan South China seafood market, suspected to be a primary source for spreading Covid-19 in late 2019, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale, including snakes, beavers, badgers, civet cats, foxes, peacocks and porcupines among other animals …
“Older shoppers generally prefer buying freshly slaughtered meat for daily consumption, believing it produces flavour in dishes and soup that is superior to frozen meat. Slabs of beef and pork hang from the butchers’ stalls while various cuts piled on the counters amid lights with a reddish glare and the occasional buzzing of flies.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government had on January 7 designated the virus as an altogether different strain of the comparatively mild coronaviruses of yesteryears, the reason they employed the term “novel” in its basic description. On January 23, China decreed a lockdown of Wuhan which lingered for 76 days. China thus set the tone for copycat lockdowns in several countries across the globe including Botswana, which was one of only a handful of countries that went for a nationwide stay-at-home restriction.
THREE MILLION INFECTED, 200,000 KILLED
The disease has since spread to more than 190 countries and killed up to 210,000 of the nearly 3 million people who have contracted it to date. In the US alone, it has claimed 56,000 scalps. Besides the US, the most impacted countries are Italy, Spain, France and the UK in that order, all of which have suffered more than 20,000 fatalities.
The death toll on the continent of Africa now stands at about 1300 only. China, the purported breeding ground of the virus, has logged just under 4700 deaths. Only one country in the whole wide world has professed having “eliminated” the coronavirus menace. This is New Zealand, a country of 5 million people that has to date registered 19 deaths out of a total of about 1500 cases.
The country declared “victory” over Covid-19 on April 28, following a five-week lockdown and during which new cases whittled down to single digits. One hopes a second wave of the dreaded pandemic is not in the offing in the country.
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org