By Amara Esther

It has been over one year since the SARS-CoV2 virus, was discovered in Wuhan, China and roughly one year that the World Health Organisation declared it a “public health emergency of international concern.” Since then, tens of millions have been infected, and millions of lives lost. As of the time that this article was written, it has been reported that about 1.8 million people have died of the disease and about 86 million victims fear for their lives around the globe. The global economic costs hit trillions of dollars. It has been projected that it will take years for the world to overcome the impact of Covid-19.

The rise in Covid-19 infections in most African countries has forced many governments to enact measures to curtail the spread of the virus and avoid the overwhelming of the public health care system. They take those steps while waiting for a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine to become available and administered to a significant number of their population. Some of these measures include social and physical distancing, wearing a mask, movement restrictions, lockdown of major cities, restrictions on social gatherings, and religious activities restrictions. While some religious leaders in Africa complied with these measures, others reacted adversely to it. These reactions ranged from outright denial and conspiratorial theorising to partial acceptance. All these did more than enough to downplay the reality of coronavirus pandemic in Africa.

For instance, the general overseer of the Bible Believing Mission in Aba, Southeast Nigeria, Kingsley Innocent (also known as Talknado), reportedly denied the existence of Covid-19. In his words: “Special prayer sessions are being held these days for coronavirus. I want to tell us that that thing is not in Nigeria. Say Talknado said so. It’s not in Nigeria. That thing cannot survive in Nigeria. What do you mean by coronavirus when there are corrosive anointing. I don’t know about other places; there is no coronavirus here. Coronavirus does not exist in Nigeria.”

As if to re-echo Innocent’s point, Pastor Augustine Yiga of Revival Christian Church, Uganda, was reported to have informed his congregations that there is “no coronavirus in Uganda and Africa.”  Sheik Sani Yahaya, a Muslim cleric in Nigeria, also declared that Covid-19 is a ghost of the West created to thwart religious obligations like congregational worship and pilgrimage. Despite this denial, evidence indicates that approximately one million people may have been infected in Africa. As of the time of this research, Covid-19 cases, for instance, in Kenya is 97, 398, Nigeria is 94, 369, South Africa is 1,149,591, Egypt is 145,590, Uganda is 36,702. Also, thousands of lives have been lost in Africa since the disease broke out. For example, Kenya records 1,694 deaths, Nigeria reports 1,324 deaths, South Africa records 31,368 deaths, Uganda reports 294 deaths. The reports in Nigeria, for instance, should be seen as mostly optimistic, since the lack of rigorous testing, presumably, conceals a much grimmer picture.

On the other hand, those religious leaders that acknowledge the reality of Covid-19 proclaim it as an instrument of God’s anger on sinful and unrepentant generation for abandoning his laws. For example, Christian leaders often cite numerous examples from the Old Testament of how disease outbreak, such as the ten plagues, are instruments of God’s anger on sinners and unbelievers. A similar response was developed in the Muslim community, where coronavirus is regarded as “one of Allah’s soldiers.” The “corona soldier” is said to be sent by Allah to deal with infidels and sinners. A historical prototype is the African traditional religious leaders’ reaction to the smallpox outbreak on Africa’s west coast in 1871. It has been reported by S. L. Kotar and J. E. Gessler that “the JuJu priests are very busy instilling into the minds of the ignorant natives that the disease is a judgment of their JuJu, or God, on the people for so many of them embracing Christianity.” This kind of reaction was reported among the people of Liberia during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As Dorothy H. Crawford reports: “So people preferred to believe that the disease was caused by evil spirits or was a punishment by God because they had ‘lost their way’. These beliefs are compounded by certain religious leaders. The Catholic Archbishop of Liberia reportedly preached that ‘one of the major transgressions against God, for which he may be punishing Liberia, is the act of homosexuality.”

These religious leaders use Covid-19 as bait for repentance (which, curiously enough, often leads to more church members). They promise of reprieve from God’s wrath if people show their repentance. These religious leaders believe that God is the anti-virus to Covid-19 and that believers should place their faith in God by adhering to the holy scriptures for divine healing. Pastor Franklin Ndifor of Kingship International Ministries Church, Cameroon, claimed that he could cure Covid-19. His ample quotations from the New Testament provided numerous examples where the laying-on of hands and faith prayer cured the sick. Unfortunately, he died less than a week after being diagnosed with Covid-19. A similar example from history is the cholera outbreak in Ethiopia in 1835 where the church leaders organised religious processions in the streets to invoke God’s mercy and save them from the disease.

This downplaying of the reality of Covid-19 has resulted in the non-compliance of religious authorities to government rules aimed at curbing the spread of the disease. They shunned the government’s instructions to close religious centres, wear a mask and observe social and physical distancing. In Nigeria, the general overseer of Love World Incorporated (aka Christ Embassy), Chris Oyakhilome, describes wearing a mask as a huge embarrassment to science and accuses the government of deceiving the people into wearing a mask, since (according to him) it is scientifically dangerous to health. The Bishop, David Oyedepo, of Living Faith Worldwide (aka Winners Chapel) considers lockdown measures as the devil’s work to stop the church’s growth in Nigeria and block Nigerians from salvation. In Cameroon, despite government’s lockdown measures on 8th of March, 2020, Muslim clerics and their faithful attended their Friday worship sessions en masse throughout the region. This kind of attitude encourages members not to observe lockdown measures, thereby increasing the rate of infection and, in turn, frustrating government’s efforts to adequately fight against the present pandemic.

Nevertheless, it seems that the fight against Covid-19 is winnable with the recent development of vaccines, which raises the optimism that very soon Covid-19 will become history. It raises the hope that humanity will no longer be subjected to the raging wrath of coronavirus that has caused millions of deaths worldwide, crippled economic activities, stripped people of their livelihood and pushed many of the world population into extreme poverty. Public health experts have suggested that such hope is realisable when at least more than half of the world’s population is inoculated  in order to reach the level of immunity needed for the suppression of the coronavirus.

However, many religious leaders in Africa have, again, revolted against this development. Even before the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, many Christian religious leaders have demonized it as part of an elaborate plan by the powers of hell to stamp within the individual’s genetic makeup, the infamous “mark of the beast [anti-christ]”. As incredulous as that sounds, there are some Christians who have vowed no to take the vaccine to avoid falling prey to the antichrist. Indeed, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome in early 2020 foretold the development of the Covid-19 vaccine and claims that it will be a façade for enthroning a “New World order” led by Anti-Christ.

Pastor Oyakhilome is not alone here. A South African man of God and Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, who should have known better, recently said that Covid-19 vaccine is from the devil. He also maintains that it is developed to infuse the mark of the beast in people’s lives so that their DNA would be corrupted. Pseudo-scientific numerologists have also reconstructed the word Covid, in order to invent its relationship with the mark of the beast: C=3, O=15, R=18, O=15, N=14, A=1, summing up to 66. In the same vein, Muslim clerics declare that the Covid-19 vaccine contains pork content and issue a Fatwas (Islamic rulings) restricting Muslims from getting vaccinated. This vociferous religious opposition to vaccination has stymied general acceptance among African populace. This pool of ridiculous theories and the wilful acceptance of it, only shows that Covid-19 will continue to be a scourge in Africa, even when the rest of the world must have curbed it.  

These religious sentiments pose a great danger to the government’s effort in combating Covid-19 in Africa. Africa is predominantly a religious continent with over half of its population identifying with one religion or another. Religious leaders often exercise an incredible amount of influence on their followers, many of which trust them more than their government. With this kind of influence that they wield, many of their followers are likely to obey their instruction not to vaccinate thereby endangering their lives and frustrating government efforts to overcome this disease. 

The above sad episodes remind us that history often repeats itself in Africa. History has shown that in the time past, whenever there is a disease outbreak, people often associate it with the wrath of God(s), and they have always paid dearly with their lives. Today, many African religious leaders are doing the same, which poses severe health consequences to their followers. To avoid this looming catastrophe, the need for public re-orientation that will re-educate and awaken their consciousness to the realities of this pandemic is very much needed. Religious leaders must also re-educate themselves, so they do not fall prey to conspiracy theories which basis is simply the imaginative mind of a social media user who wishes to garner more followers. Like their religious creed admonishes, they should always tell the truth, even when misleading one’s followers appears more lucrative. To avert the danger of history repeating itself, people in leadership potions, especially in different religions in Africa must commit to saving humanity rather than promoting superstitions and crass ignorance.