Nhlanganiso Sam Tshabalala, a freelance researcher and consultant from South Africa, shares his experience of research during the COVID-19 pandemic and urges that traditional knowledge from Africa is not ignored in the search for treatments.
Media reports on the emergence of the Coronavirus from Wuhan, China, in December 2019, did not make me lose any sleep. I honestly thought it was just one of those virus strains (viz. MERS, SARS, etc) that came before it, and will disappear without much fuss. However, its rapid spread to the rest of the world is surprising, and rates of new infections is staggering. It dawned on me that we have a major health crisis in our hands when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and when South Africa announced its first COVID-19 case on 5 March 2020.
Extreme anxiety and fear have set in, as I ponder on the survival of the human race without any effective vaccine on the horizon yet.
The call by Western medical institutions and experts to slow down the pandemic and flatten the infection curve by lockdown measures and social distancing has been adopted by our government as is. Our economy shows signs of struggle, businesses are closing, and jobs are being shed, due to the weight of extreme measures of a total lockdown imposed since 26 March 2020. My research work is delayed as most of my contacts and respondents are inaccessible because all activity is shut down except essential services. This is a rude awakening for me, that my little corner is not safe anymore. I am in uncharted waters.
I recall my late mom describing “Isifo soMgoyiyo” which I learnt later is a Zulu name for the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which it is reported claimed 300,000 lives in South Africa. I did not pay much attention to what mom was narrating at the time, and sadly lost an opportunity to learn a bit, on how my parent folks survived that awful period.
At this moment, a personal arsenal for warding off infection consists of a face mask, hand sanitizer, a temperature monitor and a prayer indoors because church gatherings are not allowed. A selection from Grandma’s choice of natural immune-boosting remedies, which old generations grew up on, would add to this assortment. There is always a silver lining in a dark cloud, so the saying goes. I therefore believe that this period offers an opportunity and impetus on researchers and practitioners to glean more from African indigenous knowledge and add into a universal medical toolbox of potential remedies for fighting COVID-19. Having said that, I am shocked to hear that indigenous practitioners in South Africa were not invited to the nationwide government consultations with stakeholders in the wake of COVID-19 talks.
I wait in anticipation to hear African medical scientists, herbalists and traditional healers’ contribution in the brainstorming discourse on finding a solution in the interim. It will be a tragedy if we, (i) are paralysed by fear, and blinded by biases in our decisions, (ii) “cut and paste” recommendations from other experts and, (iii) wait for shipments of vaccines from other laboratories. The COVID19 pandemic calls for “all hands on deck for the survival of the fragile human species”. It requires us to keep an open mind, think out of the box, innovate and collaborate in Western and Indigenous medicine formulations.
Nhlanganiso Sam Tshabalala holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering. He is a freelance researcher and consultant, from South Africa, offering training and advisory services to entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises. His research interests include, amongst others, how individuals, teams and organisations manage and equip themselves for excellence, prosperity and sustainability. He tweets as @samtshabs