When countries began to face the prospect of a COVID 19 lockdown sometime in March, western experts—many of them well-meaning—prophesied a disaster for Africa. In February, as Egypt recorded the first COVID 19 case in Africa, billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates, warned that the disease could overwhelm health service infrastructure and trigger a crisis that could lead to 10 million deaths.(1) The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa also warned that at least 300,000 Africans would die, and another 29 million would be further pushed into extreme poverty.(2) In an interview in April, Melinda Gates, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-chair, stated that she feared for Africa because there would be so many casualties that dead bodies would litter the street.(3) As videos of convulsing bodies on hospital ventilators in Italy circulated on the internet, the looming horror of millions of Africans dying felt like the world’s end.
The apocalypse, that moment when the monstrous horror that underpins existence is suddenly stripped of all its vestment and the vulnerability of everyday being and doing are un-concealed, was here. Africans were forced to reckon with the reality of the impending disaster and how they got there. As they increasingly participate in global affairs and open their borders to the world, the continent’s vulnerabilities are no longer understood in the abstract terms of economic or political issues like globalization, neoliberalism, capitalism that has always affected daily living. Provincial physical bodies, now linked with billions of others’ through the networking capabilities of an invisible virus, made everyone’s susceptibility intensely visceral. One could now easily die from a disease ignited in a faraway country, exported from a land one had never even heard of. This heightened sense of exposure spawned many desperate explanations, a reflection of how people were been forced to examine their bodies’ weight(lessness) against the larger forces of late modernity.
With most people eventually driven indoors and without much clarity on what will be, they reached for conspiracy theories. In churches especially, the pastors who were struggling to control a narrative that had gone out of their hands joined in the circulation of these conspiracy theories. Now that they could reach their counterparts in the rest of the world more easily through modern media technology and social media networks, Christians jointly went through different figurations of the anti-Christs that they could fault for the apocalypse. Pastors blamed “globalists” and liberal proponents of a unified world order like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis.(4) Because he was at the forefront of pushing for a vaccine to be created urgently; and his insistence that life would not go back to normal without a vaccine, Bill Gates eventually became the settled figure of the anti-Christ.(5)
As westerners attacked Bill Gates for his meddlesomeness in the pandemic affair and his overbearing influence over government policies, Nigerian Christians joined in his demonization. However, they did so from a perspective laden with their knowledge of the history of western exploitation of Africa. Much of the social media chatter was about what “they,” the almighty western elites perpetually scheming against Africans, had in store. A Facebook user, a presidential candidate in the 2019 general elections, insisted that COVID 19 was part of western agenda to depopulate Africa. He would share articles, some from conspiracy theory blogs, to explain to his followers that after a lot of Africans had died from the biological weapon, we would be so desperate that we would accept Bill Gates’ vaccines at whatever amount he chooses to sell them. A former minister of aviation who has a mass following on social media also joined the train of those who strove to decipher the times. His decoding of the times was buttressed with a close reading of the Bible correlated with developments on the social and political scene.(6)
The world’s most powerful president, Donald Trump, already viewed as “the chosen Christian president,” because of his alignment with American evangelicals ironically became their ultimate emblem of anti-authority due to his attacks on the World Health Organization and China.(7) The apocalypse had not only revealed vulnerabilities, but it also started inverting accepted reality. The marginalized people of the world saw an opportunity to undo the structures of globalization they held responsible for their denuded conditions. Trump’s confrontation with the WHO—and his subsequent promise to defund the organization—was especially viewed as one of the necessary steps that needed to be taken to untangle the capitalist cords that connected different countries despite their uneven levels of development. Trump’s punches at the epidemiologists and other experts on the White House team correlated with their push backs against the experts who had predicted doomsday for Africa. They believed Trump disregarded scientific predictions and expert knowledge because he had insider knowledge of the duplicity of scientists who had been corrupted by the global capitalists.
Despite the grave predictions, many African countries have done far better than experts predicted. In a continent of 1.3 billion people, the number of recorded cases is still around 371,611.(8) About half of that number has recovered. Despite the vision of dead bodies littering the streets, the death rate is around roughly 2.7 percent. Nigeria presently has just a little above 24,000 recorded cases. In contrast, powerful nations of the world such as the USA, the UK, Spain, Italy, and France have far higher casualty rates. The US alone has a tally of 128, 000 deaths. There is a strong possibility that the African COVID 19 cases are undercounted, but that will also be true for every other country. However the COVID 19 infections are totaled, Africans have still performed better than the gloomy forecasts. The continent that was infantilized at the beginning is now the one about to triumphantly emerge with far less casualties. The doubters feel justified.
While it might still be too early to start the victory party, those that initially expressed doubts about the possible scale of the disaster insist they are vindicated. Interestingly, the outcome, so far, is being treated as a spiritual conquest. The emerging standpoint is that the experts that conspired against them have been defeated, and God won the victory on their behalf. God not only mitigated the predicted disaster, but He also frustrated the schemes of the globalists and their paternalistic attitude.
Now emboldened by that victory, their next battle frontier is pushing for the re-opening of the churches that have been shut (along with other religious houses) since March. Many pastors have grown weary of preaching to empty auditoriums while their congregation watches remotely via the internet. They insist that the costs of the pandemic to every sphere of the economy, including churches, are not worth the continuous shutdown. Through their sermons, they put pressure on the government to re-open the churches. They try to achieve this goal by portraying public officials as dupes of a malicious western conspiracy. Their hopes of winning ride on the wave of the victory they already won, and it remains to be seen how they will push through this one too.
Abimbola Adelakun, PhD., is an Assistant Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department of the University of Texas at Austin. Her research is on the politics and practices of Pentecostalism in Nigeria.
(4) https://allnews.ng/news/coronavirus... (This also circulated on YouTube videos, but they have been pulled down now)
(5) http://saharareporters.com/2020/05/08/bill-gates... (Much of these sentiments are social media comments, and buttressed by messages circulated on WhatsApp. However, the above article also captures much of the sentiments)