Nigeria has tested more than two million Coronavirus (COVID-19) with one hundred and sixty confirmed cases and more than two thousand death recorded, a number that continues to rise.
Despite this, many Nigerians have continued to doubt the existence of the novel Coronavirus in the country, with insinuations that everything about the virus is politicized and an avenue for corrupt government officials to steal from public coffers. Some believe that what has been reported so far as Covid-19 is nothing but overhyped Malaria.
Although there’ve been no empirical evidence to support this claim, the disinformation which was first made public by Chief Raymond Dokpesi, Chairman of Daar Communication and reechoed months later by Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State between May and August last year had been spreading like wildfire both on and offline in Nigeria.
Dokpesi and seven members of his family had contracted the virus and were admitted into the Abuja Covid-19 isolation Centre on the 1st of May 2020. Fortunately for him, 15 days later, the medical team were able to manage him and others to a point of successful discharge.
However, instead of commending the efforts of the health workers, in his first interview after his discharge, he rather came out with the claim that what he suffered was malaria as there was no clear difference between the two diseases. He further challenged relevant authorities to educate him on the difference between the diseases claiming that throughout his stay in the isolation centre, he was managed with anti-Malarial drugs.
Bello on the other hand has been promoting different conspiracy theories about COVID-19 ranging from refusing to adhere to all standard COVID-19 prevention protocols, insisting it’s a hoax while describing the virus as an overhyped malaria and more recently, refusing to take the vaccine with the claim that, it was poisonous and designed to kill.
Despite Nigeria’s national Public Health Institute in charge of detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks, Nigeria Centre For Disease Control (NCDC) coming out with several campaigns, promoted in the social media with Twitter as primary channel as well as during the frequent briefing of the Presidential Steering Committee On COVID-19 (formally known as Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19) to counter them, the disinformation continued to generate debate in the country.
A twitter User, @Crusader even started a campaign last year with the hashtag, #EndCovid-19scamnow” in support of Dokpesi’s position that the Nigerian government had been reporting Malaria cases as COVID-19. The tweet launching the campaign generated 78 retweets, 266 likes and 15 replies.
Recall that the first COVID-19 case in Nigeria was confirmed on the 27th of February 2020. It was imported into the country by an Italian businessman who flew in from Milan for a business meeting in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Since this period, the number has continued to increase and a lot of Nigerians, including prominent citizens like the Late Chief of Staff to the President, Alhaji Abba Kyari, former Governor of Oyo State, Abiodun Ajimobi, Sen. Buruji Kashamu and most recently, a popular activist and Spokesman of Yoruba apex socio – political group, Chief Yinka Odumankin have all died from the virus. Despite this and other empirical evidence, the debate on whether COVID-19 exists or not still making waves.
Samuel Ushie, a University Don who lives in Calabar, explained why he supports the claim that Covid-19 is the same as Malaria.
According to him, “it all started with my wife. She was so sick, I was scared initially because she had all what they claim were symptoms of COVID-19 – loss of sense of smell, cough, fever and others. But after praying, I bought malaria drugs for her and she recovered. Few days later, I felt sick myself with the same symptoms. I went to the hospital, ran some tests but nothing came out negative. I had a little malaria which wasn’t enough to cause the kind of symptoms felt.
To be honest with you, I thought I was going to die because even my skin changed. But my wife gave me the malaria drugs she took and since then, I’ve regained myself. So, I believe that if at all there’s COVID-19 in Nigeria, we’re yet to discover it because what we’ve now maybe another family of malaria which is yet to be discovered because if Malaria drugs can cure it, why is it given another name?”, he queried.
Asked why they didn’t test for COVID-19, he said: “I knew that there’s no way we would have gone there and returned home. The fear of being kept in an isolation centre for what we believe is Malaria scared us. See, we’re Christians, even though some of our friends presumed what we suffered was COVID-19, we don’t believe it and that’s it. It can only be Covid-19 to people who believe it. For me and my household, we don’t believe it exists. But we believe malaria does.”
Also, a medical practitioner with the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, Dr. Samuel Bitty said that even as a health expert, he believes that COVID-19 doesn’t exist in Nigeria. He said that what people may call COVID-19 is nothing but acute malaria which most times also affects the brain.
“I will give you my honest opinion. I think what we’ve here is cerebral malaria. Cerebral malaria is part of a multi-organ disease, it causes fever, headache, even loss of sense of taste. It can even cause severe acute respiratory syndrome. People may see it like COVID-19. For some time now, there is no accurate proof about COVID-19 in Nigeria”, Dr. Bitty said.
From Bitty’s opinion, it’s clear that even some health professionals who are frontliners in the fight against COVID-19 believe that it is another form of Malaria and as such are also helping in spreading the disinformation. However, findings have proven that COVID-19 does exist and it is not Malaria.
To understand the difference, it’s important to understand what the two diseases mean.
According to World Health Organization, WHO, “COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 but were not traced to human” .
Malaria on the other hand is described by WHO as a “preventable and treatable disease caused by plasmodium parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes”.
Similarly, although some Malaria symptoms like fever, headache, and chills which show up between 10-15 days of mosquito bites are also found in COVID-19 infected persons. Others like loss of sense of smell/taste, difficulty in breathing, diarrhea, catarrh, fatigue, body pain and sore throat are not very common symptoms of malaria.
Malaria and Covid-19 also differ in terms of transmission. While malaria according to WHO is “transmitted through the bites of female Anopheles mosquitoes which are more than 400 species with around 30 as malaria vectors of major importance”. Covid-19 according to NCDC on the other hand is spread from “infected people’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe”.
NCDC further emphasized that the virus spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with each other, typically within 1 metre. “A person can be infected when aerosols or droplets containing the virus are inhaled or come directly into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth”. Malaria doesn’t spread between people but by female mosquito bite.
The NCDC has advised that to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people should wash their hands regularly with soap and running water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, maintain social distancing from people coughing or sneezing, wear a face mask, cover nose and mouth with a bent elbow or a tissue when coughing or sneezing. None of these preventive measures can work with malaria because the mode of transmission is through a mosquito bite and not human.
The WHO World Malaria report indicates that Vector control, sleeping under treated mosquito nets, using insecticide are some of the measures that can be applied in the prevention of malaria.
According to United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC),” malaria parasites can be identified by examining under the microscope a drop of the patient’s blood, spread out as a “blood smear” on a microscope slide. Prior to examination, the specimen is stained (most often with the Giemsa stain) to give the parasites a distinctive appearance”. It can be treated using antibacterial and antiparasitic medications such as Chloroquine phosphate, (Coartem), etc.
Nevertheless, there’s still doubt about the efficacy of some vaccines approved by WHO for the prevention of COVID-19 infection. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in Nigeria, has approved the Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines for the treatment of the virus in Nigeria.
Chief Medical Director of Omega Clinic and General Secretary, Association of General and Private Medical Practitioners of Nigeria (AGPMPN), Cross River State Chapter, Dr. Godwin Agbor clarified that: “Covid-19 is real. It’s unfortunate that alot of wrong information are in the social media space about COVID-19 from some people who may not be professional but disguising as one. The fact is that this strain of virus is relatively new to us and much more facts are yet to be presented about its genomics. Researches and more studies are currently underway to unravel the pathophysiology of the COVID-19 infection”.
He added that, “My candid opinion is that it is real and not overhyped Malaria as insinuated by many. It is a RNA virus that affects the respiratory system leading to a cascade of reactions from inflammation to even death. It has nothing to do with malaria which is a protozoa transmitted to man by the bite of its vector- mosquito. Though malaria presents as a non specific systemic illness. It means that some signs and symptoms of malaria can be seen in Covid-19 infection. But they are not the same”.
Agbor added that the misinformation and disinformation about the virus is hampering to a large extent the fight against the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria. He advised that people should not take hook line and sinker, things they read on both electronic and print media but should verify from established authorities and professional bodies.
As the world continue to battle with virus, every responsible Nigerian is expected to take responsibility and play a part in winning the war against the virus by always passing the right information. One of such information that should remain in the lips of everybody is that as majority experts and established authorities have said, COVID-19 may present some symptoms that are similar to those of Malaria, it’s however distinct.
This is an edited version of a story by Inyali Peter which originally appeared on June 10, 2021on Najla Voice.