ABUJA, Nigeria—U.S. President Donald Trump is not the only figure threatening the World Health Organization while endorsing dubious coronavirus treatments. In Africa, news outlets and social media posts notorious for spreading Russian-created disinformation and conspiracy theories are leveling all sorts of allegations against the WHO, ranging from incompetence to fraud.
At the center of the attacks is what appears to be a coordinated campaign promoting an herbal concoction the Moscow-backed government of Madagascar claims will cure COVID-19.
The attacks on the WHO intensified when the agency released a statement on May 4 warning Africans against using untested remedies for treatment of the coronavirus after the Malagasy government began to extoll—and export in large quantities—an untested herbal infusion sometimes bottled like soda that’s called Covid-Organics. The main component for the tonic is artemisia annua, known as sweet wormwood, which has been shown to have some therapeutic value against malaria (PDF).
The WHO announced its support for traditional medicines if they are “scientifically proven” to be effective, but warned pointedly that "the use of products to treat COVID-19, which have not been robustly investigated can put people in danger, giving a false sense of security and distracting them from hand washing and physical distancing which are cardinal in COVID-19 prevention."
The herbal remedy’s biggest booster is Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina, a 45-year-old media entrepreneur elected in 2018 with help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose meddling, as detailed by the New York Times, was blatant even by Kremlin standards. (Rajoelina denies getting any assistance.)
Covid-Organics has not gone through clinical trials. An aide to Rajoelina told the BBC the tonic was “tried out” on fewer than 20 people over three weeks before it was launched in April—a “test” that does not even begin to meet scientific or medical standards.
Rajoelina’s response? He accused the West of condescending behavior toward traditional African therapy, telling French media that the product would have been globally accepted "if it was a European country that had actually discovered this remedy.""[Madagascar] has come up with this formula to save the world," said Rajoelina, who claims the herbal tonic cures COVID-19 patients within 10 days. "No country or organization will keep us from going forward."
Rajoelina has gained lots of support in East Africa, especially in Tanzania (another country that has established deep ties with the Kremlin in recent years). Its controversial leader, President John Pombe Magufuli, has openly endorsed Covid-Organics and also insinuated recently that the WHO artificially inflated the number of COVID-19 cases in his country.
All this parallels, however weirdly, the kinds of assertions and statements made by the U.S. president about miracle cures—ranging in his case from hydroxychloroquine to household bleach, thought not yet Covid-Organics—as well as the failings of a World Health Organization he says is under China’s thumb. And the similarities in the narrative are not entirely coincidental. Many of the African sites spreading these stories also are enthusiastic supporters of Trump.
A number of Tanzanian newspapers have criticized the WHO for its refusal to approve Covid-Organics. A pro-government publication, Tanzania Perspective, particularly, reported that Rajoelina accused the WHO of offering him a $20 million bribe to poison the herbal tonic. A spokesperson for the Malagasy president later denied that wild claim, but not until it had gone viral on social media across the continent, including broadcasts on WhatsApp by such groups as One Africa, One Success (OAOS), a platform for African students studying in Russia that has been used to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories targeting the U.S. and defending Trump.
Members of the OAOS have also claimed in their messages that Bill Gates has prevented the WHO from approving coronavirus therapies—including hydroxychloroquine—that supposedly have proven to be effective in Africa, a narrative that has been picked up by high-profile politicians in the continent and extended to Covid-Organics.
"Madagascar claims to have a herbal-based cure for Covid 19," tweeted Femi Fani-Kayode, a former Nigeria aviation minister and a die-hard Trump supporter. "Why is it that the @BillGates-controlled @WHO refuses to take Africans seriously even where some of these ‘cures’ have yielded appreciable positive results?"
Back in Madagascar, numerous media outlets, some of which were used by Russia to publish fawning articles about Rajoelina to help him win the 2018 presidential election, have accused the WHO of ineffectiveness, claiming that the agency is being manipulated by certain high powers to undermine Madagascar's coronavirus treatment discovery.
"What you see mostly in the papers is that the WHO doesn't care about finding a coronavirus cure," Thierry Pam, a French freelance journalist living in Madagascar, told The Daily Beast. "No one says anything good about the WHO."
One social media post that went viral across Africa in late April claimed that Putin actually ordered a million doses of Covid-Organics and called on Africans not to listen to the WHO. Agence France Presse (AFP) reported the story was totally bogus. There was never such an order, Madagascar’s authorities denied it, and, officially at least, Russia usually supports WHO efforts to address the pandemic.
But disinformation campaigns often are at odds with officially stated policies because their objectives are different. The focus of Russia’s activities has been to drive a wedge between Africa and other international players, whether the U.S., European nations, or China. The Covid-Organics controversy is potentially just another tool to create resentment, as reflected in President Rajoelina’s assertions that his country’s “cure” for the pandemic is being ignored by the West because it is from Africa.
Much of the news that people in Madagascar see or listen to is content created by media outlets set up by the operations of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin who was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for allegedly financing the Internet Research Agency that worked to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
A leaked document viewed last year by The Guardian revealed that Russia “produced and distributed the island’s biggest newspaper, with 2 million copies a month.” The Russians also run a French-language news service, Afrique Panorama, based in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, according to The Guardian's report.
Madagascar is one of Africa’s poorest nations, with about 80 percent of its 25 million people living on less than $2 per day, but it has managed to ship tens of thousands of doses of Covid-Organics to several countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania, Comoros, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. Many of these reportedly have been sent for free, leading to suggestions that Madagascar may have gotten Russia's help to produce large amounts of the drug.
Since his election, Rajoelina has promoted closer ties with Moscow. Most notably, he has strengthened his military cooperation and allowed a company owned by Prigozhin, which had acquired a major stake in a government-run firm that mines chromium under Rajoelina's predecessor, to keep control of the operation. This despite protests by workers complaining of canceled benefits and unpaid wages.
Meanwhile, in a country where tests have been very limited, and some of those marred by controversy, hundreds of people are now known to be infected with the virus, and the numbers are rising rapidly. The first two confirmed COVID-19 deaths were reported just this week.