Africa is lucky with Corona; Can it hold out a viral digital attack?

Saturday March 28 2020

Africans should stop basking in the luck of not being early coronavirus targets. We may not be so lucky if the next viral attack is digital, like allegedly happened to a much more advanced country’s electoral system. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG


There isn’t yet any universally accepted explanation why the coronavirus hit Africa last and least.

The continent’s interaction with China has been intensive and extensive as with other countries and regions, so the explanation for Africans’ holding out longer could be more scientific than social.

After all, there are other diseases which black Africans are more predisposed than other races, for example maternal pre-eclampsia.

So Africa cannot claim credit for having remained corona-free longer than more developed regions of the world. It certainly had little to do with robustness of our health facilities or systems.

Scientists and leaders should find the reason for the initial luck. And it is strategically important that we do not listen only to the superior expertise from outside; we know our societies better than the outsiders and we are, therefore, best-placed to protect them.
Two examples suffice here.

First is the HIV/Aids outbreak in the early 1980s. Uganda was initially one of the worst hit countries globally at the time. This was largely because the disease came when a civil war was raging—for five years—and fighting Aids was not a priority as everybody was busy dodging bullets.


When the war ended in 1986, the population and the leaders accepted that there was no cure for the disease and what they had to do was prevent new infections while treating opportunistic infections of the affected persons with Septrin until they died.

If that trend had continued, there would have been no more HIV in Uganda from around the year 2000, as all the unlucky people who had it would have died and no new infections would occur.

But now we have one and half million people with HIV out of 42 million. That is thanks to the kind intervention of the donors who turned the Aids epidemic into a big money affair.

Many people

If a miraculous/accidental end to HIV happened, there would be a crisis in the global multibillion-dollar Aids sector. Now HIV will most likely never go away, youth don’t fear it and it employs many people.

Second, the Ebola crisis in DR Congo has virtually ended. Its end had a lot to do with the resilience of the Congolese themselves. With Ebola came the gains of vigilant sanitation. 

The multibillion-dollar interventions from outside helped, but local behavioral measures played a bigger part, as almost happened to HIV in Uganda before the big monies came in.

But if we have been initially lucky with coronavirus, we may not be so lucky if the next virus is not biological, but digital.

Think of the price war raging between Russia and Saudi Arabia that has wrecked the world oil industry and in one week managed to render the powerful Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) cartel irrelevant.

If a foreign force launched a digital war on Africa’s communication and financial systems, would we hold out the way Russia has withstood the Saudi price attack and likely to even emerge the winner as the Saudis lick their wounds?

Non-African journalists

Is a cyber-attack on Africa a far-fetched wild imagination? Did you detect some (obviously involuntary) glee in the voices of non-African journalists talking about the first, second and subsequent cases of coronavirus in Africa?

If a developed superpower can be suspected of rigging the presidential election of another superpower thereby imposing a leadership on it against the wish of the people, why would inflicting a lesser sin (economic rather than state capture) on a continent whose ‘role’ for centuries has been to be exploited, be far-fetched?

Africans should stop basking in the luck of not being early coronavirus targets. We may not be so lucky if the next viral attack is digital, like allegedly happened to a much more advanced country’s electoral system.

Our leaders need to know that the Internet is not like oxygen, it is based on some infrastructure and can be infected in ways unfathomable that could render even offshore backups for banks useless.

If Africa woke up one day with all its communication and financial systems disabled, even the paper currency found in cash would be useless. It is time Africa’s feared leaders started thinking of such possibilities.

Only last month, the Opec officials didn’t imagine that today, their organisation would not even be worth discussing in a world that is pre-occupied with Corona and cancellation of football matches, including the Olympics.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]