Science may never explain low coronavirus infections in Africa

Even science needs God. That was the bold public declaration by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the conclusion of the National Day of Prayer at State House in March. Kenya had experienced many calamities, including terrorist attacks, drought, floods and the recent locust invasion.

Fear and panic had also gripped the nation after the announcement of the first case of coronavirus. The president therefore pronounced, “I have decided to declare this coming Saturday, March 21, as a National Day for Prayer. We acknowledge always that we are nothing without our God. And we have learnt over time that turning to God in such times gives us not only comfort but also hope and strength to overcome even those challenges that for us, as humans, may seem insurmountable.”

While many Kenyans welcomed the call to prayer, others dismissed it as inconsequential. Makau Mutua was especially firm. “Prayers won’t help Kenya combat the coronavirus pandemic. Let us stop this superstition and return to science. This primordialism and naivete could wipe us off the face of the map,” remarked the professor. “Those who think prayer can stop coronavirus should watch Italy, the seat of the Vatican,” he added.

Ahmednasir Abdullahi concurred in a tweet: “While the rest of the world is addressing the coronavirus through emergency powers, wartime powers, scientific tools and huge financial resources, it looks like Kenya’s competitive advantage lies in prayers.”

It may still be too early to ascertain the efficacy of prayers or the lack thereof, but several weeks down the road, there is profound confusion over the low numbers of Covid-19 prevalence not just in Kenya, but across Africa. While the centres of science are devastated, Africa and Latin America – other than Ecuador – have remained mostly below the radar of the deadly virus, thereby defying initial projections.

Infection rates

In a recent well-written opinion piece, Jok Madut Jok – a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University – conceded that the low infection rates in Africa have left leading scientists groping. Theories have included claims that it may be due to natural immunity, climate, prior vaccinations, nutrition or even genetics. Some are suggesting that perhaps people are getting infected, but due to some combination of characteristics unique to some Africans, most remain asymptomatic. Others are predicting that the epidemic may be slow, but Africa is going to bear the brunt of it all.

What is interesting is that in all this clamour for insight into the puzzle of Africa, no one has proposed a spiritual dimension. It is as if it is unscientific to consider faith in such studies. And yet, some of the great scientists have never been afraid to acknowledge God in their work.

Sir Isaac Newton saw God as essential to the existence of space. He said: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Similarly, William Keen, the first brain surgeon in the US and a prominent surgical pathologist, publicly acknowledged the influence of his Christian faith on his work. Gary Starkweater, the inventor of the laser printer, worked with some of the leading technology innovators, including Apple, Microsoft and Xerox, yet he boldly credited the success of his inventions to the guidance and inspiration of God. “I believe that to a great extent, the creativity we possess is because the Creator put it there. I think it has to please him when He sees us use those faculties to make something completely new,” Starkweater declared.

If we bring the faith perspective into the current Africa puzzle, some things may begin to make sense. John Mbiti once observed that Africans are so notoriously religious that religion permeates permanently into all departments of life – so fully so that it is not easy or possible always to isolate it. No wonder, when Africans saw coronavirus coming, they retreated to the place of prayer – and have not come out.

Philip Jenkins, a missiology scholar, argues in his book, The Next Christendom, that Christianity has shifted inexorably southward to Africa and Latin America. Interestingly, these are the two regions that have been least affected by the pandemic.

Thus, though Ahmednassir may perhaps have intended to be sarcastic, the truth is that while the rest of the world is deploying scientific tools and huge financial resources to fight corona, it looks like Kenya’s, and indeed Africa’s, competitive advantage lies in prayers. God helping us, the predicted numbers will never be witnessed in our land – a fact that science may never explain.

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