Is there an indigenous African antidote for Coronavirus?

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Thu, 11 Jun 2020 Source: Cameron Duodu

Around 1959, I was working at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation as a Sub-Editor in the News Section.

In those days, the GBC was teeming with talent – for instance, the future Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, was a newsreader; the University of Ghana archaeologist, the late Professor J R Anquandah, was a Technician in the Presentation Department, and the future BBC World Service Morning Show and Good Morning Africa presenter, the late Pete Myers, was a rising star in the Entertainment Section.

Pete Myers and I both owned Lambretta scooters, and we facilitated frequent gatherings amongst the ambitious young staff of the GBC, during which we planned our futures and, of course, discussed the current goings-on in our newly independent country. We had such great fun.

One day, I arrived at the home of Pete Myers to discover that he was shaking from head to foot. His eyes were reddened and had a yellowish tinge. He had a very high temperature. And he was hardly coherent.

I knew at once that he was suffering from malaria.

What to do? I was able to smother my panic long enough to reason that since Pete was a non-African, he must have used “white man's medicines” against malaria many times before (whilst he was living in Ghana): you know, drugs like Daraprim, Nivaquine (I think!), Chloroquine, and that sort of thing.

If Pete had caught malaria in spite of the common availability of such prophylactics in Ghana (they could be bought at pharmacies without a doctor's prescription) then if he was prescribed with them again, he might perish.

This unwelcome thought concentrated my mind and made me unusually courageous. I remembered that whenever anyone from my large family at Asiakwa (my mother alone had nine children; there were also the children she had inherited from my father's first marriage, as well as the usual cousin relatives who constituted our “extended family!”) – whenever any of us caught what we called hura? [our name for malaria] he or she was not taken to the only neighbourhood hospital [sited at Kyebi, and reached over a very bad unpaved road that might kill the patient before he/she arrived at the hospital!] my parents used a local treatment to cure the illness.

“Ah!” I thought. “None of us died as a result of this medicine being given to us. Why not try it on my friend?

Fortunately, there were a lot of neem trees growing luxuriantly around Pete's house. So I collected some leaves from them, but the leaves in a pot and lit a fire under the pot. One thing was missing from the potion I wanted to prepare – a piece of camphor. I went into Pete's wardrobe and began looking. Eureka! I found some balls of camphor in the drawers, broke a piece off one, and went to add it to the boiling neem leaves.

After about ten minutes, I took the boiling stuff off the fire, poured it into a bucket, took a large towel and draped it around the edges of the bucket and called Pete over.

I took him to the bucket, sat him around it, and immersed his head into the top part of the towel, making sure no air could escape from the towel head-wrap.

He was too weak to object and I made sure he had no choice but to breathe in – continually – the steam-cum-vapor that rose out of the bucket.

I watched him and smiled to myself as he began to sweat profusely – just as I knew he would. After a while, I took the towel off his head and led him to his bed.

Pete slept deeply for over four hours. First, he stopped sweating. Next, his breathing became easier. Then he woke up!

“Cameron, please bring me some water!” he called out. The voice in which he said this was quite normal. I was pleased with this because if malaria had been still in him, he could have become delirious.

I took him to the water.

He sat up.

He drank the water nicely and sighed deeply.

Pete had regained normality! Yet my amateur doctoring of the experiment had taken less than six hours!

I was overjoyed.

Now, I knew from Nature Studies in school that malaria could be cured by quinine, which was obtained from the bark of a tree called cinchona. But our Nature Studies book didn't mention the neem tree as something that was also capable of healing malaria.

Why not?

I dismissed the idea as one of the lunacies that related to knowledge, as acquired and practiced by the white man, and as known and used by the black-man, out of his own experience. We had used neem tree leaves to cure malaria successfully at a time when West Africa was so dangerous to white people, because of malaria, that the whites called West Africa “The Whitemans Grave”!

But those who wrote books to “teach” us “knowledge” were either so ignorant they didn't know about the indigenous medicines that had saved us from extinction, since the creation of our populace, or knew about the medicines but thought them too “primitive” to be written about in books! Or maybe, they wanted to make money selling us imported quinine preparations, at great cost to us!

It was so unfair! I mean: whenever we had a disease of the eye called an [conjunctivitis] my father would go into the bush, collect the leaves of a plant called nunummerewa, mash them on a stone specially used for preparing herbal medicines, add water on to the leaves and put the almost-liquid concoction in a clean piece of cloth. He would then squeeze the liquid carefully out of the cloth and shoot it into our eyes, drip-by-drip.

We always shut our eyes fast and cried out when the liquid got in! But he would wait patiently and allow us to recover our breath – and our courage – and then shoot the liquid into our eyes again. He stopped when he thought both eyes had got enough medicine in them. Our itchy, reddened eyes would stop emitting smut and get healed in two days or less.

My father also had medicines for chicken-pox, stomach-ache, yaws and mumps – all diseases that worried us very much, as children. And, of course, he had heaps of different herbs for sores that arose out of injuries we sustained during play.

Knowing all this, I am thrilled to bits by the debate that's going on – especially over the Internet – interrogating the possibility of developing an “African cure” for Covid-19, out of African indigenous drugs.

But I am withholding an opinion on the efficacy or otherwise of using such preparations (apparently being used in Madagascar and Tanzania) until tests prove them efficacious. Similarly, I have no judgment to make about the use of hydroxychloroquine and other quinine-based medicines for the treatment of the disease.

My caution arises from two main facts among others: firstly, we do not, as yet, know the full story of the origins of Covid-19.

Was it developed by the Americans and sent to China during a military sports tournament between China and the US a few months back, as the Chinese have suggested? We don't know.

Or was it developed by China as a defense weapon against a possible US attack, as some in the West believe? We don't know.

If it was artificially developed, of course, then that whop developed it would have the antidote. In which case outsiders attempting to cure the disease with their own methods would be barking up the wrong tree!

But seriously speaking, it is so unfortunate that both China and the US possess such a Machiavellian attitude towards power – especially power held over other nations – that it would be foolish to adopt a firm opinion on the artificial origins of Covid-19, either way.

That consideration apart, I am afraid there is only one way of attesting to the efficacy or otherwise of any suggested cure for Covid-19, and that's the time-tested method of observing how a potential cure works in real humans; arriving at conclusions from the observation, and then TESTING the conclusions against what Nature offers.

This is how Wikipedia outlines the scientific methodology necessary for fulfilling those criteria:

QUOTE: Define a question; Gather information and resources (observe); Form an explanatory hypothesis; Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner; Analyse the data; Interpret the data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypotheses; Publish the results; Retest (frequently) and get other scientists [to do it]. UNQUOTE

It must be emphasized that creating a credible cure for Covid-19 through scientifically-approved methods will necessitate carrying out expensive TESTING of the proposed cure on humans over a requisite period. How many countries have the personnel and technical resources for that? Even if some small country's indigenous knowledge and social experience encourage it to offer a cure, would that country be able to go successfully through the processes that will win the medicine approval for general human consumption?

What about the creation of side-effects whilst applying the cure? Will there be adequate scientific knowledge to study the exact causes of such side-effects and establish their unexpected effects on human bodies? Can cures for side-effects be successfully implanted into the cure, if and when the cure is prescribed for humans?

Finally, will the results of the work by a minnow country be objectively assessed by those from advanced countries charged with subjecting the studies to “peer-review”? Or will some monstrously rich members of the Big-Pharma community buy off the results covertly and use them to buttress its position as an institution that can provide more or less “omniscient” research results at critical periods when mankind is exposed to hitherto unknown pandemics?

These considerations constitute a tall order and that's what puts countries like Madagascar and Tanzania at a great disadvantage. Their basic difficulty comes from this question: since Covid-19 is so new, how do they know that the cure they think they've got for it is indeed the correct one? Had they independently discovered Covid-19 before the current outbreak struck the world? If so, why didn't they tell the world? If challenged [by say, W.H.O.], do they have the resources to put their cure through the necessary, prolonged TESTS?

On the other hand, is it fair that the lack of resources (money and scientific expertise) should be allowed to rule out, a priori, the possibility that a small, “under-developed” country in an obscure corner of the world, might have the ingenuity to recapture knowledge that had existed in its history, but which racist, colonial evaluators had dismissed out of hand?

I postulate such a possibility because of the apparent contempt with which the neem tree/malaria solution had been treated in Ghana. The empirical knowledge I gained from that episode tells me that we do possess knowledge that can sometimes astound certain countries with enormous resources, whose leaders might be inclined to adopt bleach and other disinfectants as a cure for Covid-19!

I must confess that sometimes, in the wake of such challenges, I strongly wish I were a properly-trained scientist!

Columnist: Cameron Duodu
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