When news of the first COVID-19 cases in Southern Africa came through, there was much panic.
People had watched in terror as the pandemic began as a localised outbreak in Wuhan, China and then spread across some of the most medically advanced nations, killing people in a manner that socked everyone.
It was, therefore, understandable that locals received news of the first cases with much trepidation.
The havoc COVID-19 wreaked across Asia, Europe and the Americas left SADC citizens worried about what would happen here where the health service delivery system is clearly not on the Western hemisphere level in terms of funding and accessibility.
Southern Africa’s health delivery systems arevcharacterised by high costs of consultation and medication. This has left the majority unable to afford healthcare services.
An economic phenomenon called “medical inflation” means that medical costs regularly outstrip any increase in incomes and other indicators.
As expected, COVID-19 did hit the region, arriving largely through returning residents before spreading rapidly through local infections. Governments in the region enforced lockdowns, some with inter-city and inter-regional travel bands, night-time curfews and restriction and prohibitions of social gatherings such as churches, funeral and sporting activities.
Governments and the private sector rallied to set up and equip hospitals with varying degrees of success. The general population has had varying degrees of access to the facilities as the disease has spread.
One result of the combined challenges of high costs and limited access has been the rise in the use of traditional remedies as people dig deep into historical cures and indigenous knowledge to fight a new enemy unlike any that their departed ancestors ever knew.
Madagascar blazed the herbal trail with the launch of their aptly named Covid Organics.
The herbal tonic was developed in Madagascar by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) and touted as a cure for COVID-19.
Its chief ingredient is reported to be sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), a plant of Asian origin that gave rise to the antimalarial drug artemisinin.
Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina claimed the tonic had passed scientific scrutiny and cured two patients of COVID-19.
Scientists were quick to say the drug could fuel drug-resistant malaria in Africa, but several African countries reportedly placed orders for the brew.
In Zimbabwe, the African fever tree (Zumbani) has gained a new position as the frontline defence in many homes. Herbal traders are making a tidy profit and selling the herb, which is taken like tea.
Lemon, ginger and garlic are selling like the keys to paradise, fuelled by their reputation as super agents in boosting immune systems.
“We have been stocking ginger and selling dried ginger over the past years. This year we have come to a point where we literally wait for the farmer to dig it up, and we are selling it fresh from the ground. This is how much demand there is for it,” said Mr Tendekai Chimuka, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler who suppliers traders in Harare’s busy Mbare market.
The demand for garlic has shot up, driven by its reputation as a potential immunity booster.
Not to be left out is the humble guava leaf, which has found room in these concoctions.
Steaming is also proving to be popular, although there is a danger attached to it as unconfirmed statistics point to an upsurge in incidents of burns as people try to get children to take in steam from a bowl of boiling water, either plain or infused with garlic and other herbs.
The high usage of these home remedies has found traction with word of mouth carrying success stories.
A family in Kadoma, 142km from Harare says they used steaming and zumbani to overcome COVID-19.
“My husband tested positive for COVID-19 at work. He was advised to self-isolate since he was not showing any symptoms. A few days after his positive result came through I felt unwell and went to get tested. I tested positive on a rapid test,” said Mrs Anna Muringayi.
She says they each took three sessions a day of steaming and drank more than a litre of zumbani tea daily.
“We did not take any other medications. We just took these and followed the advice of the medical team to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people. After three weeks we both tested negative,” she said.
At the onset of the pandemic in Zimbabwe, Dr Nyika Mahachi, the president of Zimbabwe College of Public Health Physicians, said the new coronavirus was still evolving.
"So we cannot take a chance with traditional medicine that is not proven," he added. "Even on the regular medicines that we have, none of them have been proven to be effective in treatment or cure of COVID-19.”
Mr Tribert Chishanyu, president of Zimbabwe Traditional Practitioners Association, said his organisation was keen to help.
"Traditional medicine practice is older ... than science and it is accepted by the majority of Zimbabweans," he said. "If modern scientists are given opportunities to try whenever there is an emergency disease (outbreak), why can't we do the same to traditional medicine practice? We are treating symptoms related to COVID-19, so by (some) chance we may be able to treat COVID-19."
In South Africa, home remedies have had a material impact on farmers’ capacity to meet demand. The demand for garlic and ginger has pushed up the price of the commodities.
Corrie Bezuidenhout, chairperson of the South African Garlic Growers’ Association told the Sunday Independentthat garlic producers were not reaping the benefits of the high prices – around R88 a kilogramme - partly because it’s out of season and a number of large garlic producers ceased garlic production over the past two years.
Bezuidenhout said the shortfall in garlic was compounded by logistical delays from Spain and China, countries that export garlic to South Africa and were heavily affected by COVID-19, which led to those markets easing exports temporarily while getting the pandemic under control.
However, he said, South Africans could expect to find fresh garlic in their supermarkets from September when local harvesting peaks.
Bezuidenhout added there had also been a spike in the demand for ginger, with a huge increase in requests from its supermarket clients.
“On the market, ginger is scarce. In the field, ginger roots are still small.
“Farmers aren’t comfortable taking out all of their immature rhizomes now, despite the excellent prices,” he said.
The harvesting season started in June. Ginger prices rose to R110 a kilogramme, about R20 above the usual price at this time of the year, he said.
Bezuidenhout said this was due to global effects because China accounts for about 80 percent of the global garlic export market, 47 percent of the ginger market and 20 percent of the chilli market.
He added that South Africans would have to contend with the high prices or even consider alternative herbal concoctions to fight to boost their immune systems in time for flu season.
Meanwhile in South Africa, traditional healers gotten involved in the search for a COVID-19 cure.
Traditional Healers Organisation’s co-ordinator, Phepsile Maseko recently said, “We want traditional healers to be included in the whole primary health-care spectrum because if they are only involved in just matters of HIV/Aids and TB, then it means traditional health practitioners are made to assist in only those restrictions, which is not the case in the traditional healing practice.”
Traditional healer Zama Ndebele was quoted by local media bemoaning the government’s sidelining of traditional healers and traditional medicine.
“Historically, it is known that most medications are extracted from plants, he explained.
“Even if you had looked at the very first tablet that cured malaria, which was quinine, it was taken from a tree. At the moment, the Artemisia Afra, herb known as uMhlonyane, is being used often. Therefore, we are of the view that there is a need to acknowledge and proactively engage healers to also contribute to the discourse of finding solutions,” said Ndebele.
According to Ndebele, there are herbs that are used to treat pneumonia, there are herbs used to treat flu and when you look at the symptoms of Covid-19, for each one of them, there are herbs that can assist.
In Zimbabwe, the use of herbs has also been fuelled by a growing stigma attached to testing positive for new coronavirus.
Ruramai Janhi from Harare tested positive and since that result her home has become known as the home of “that covid woman.”
Her neighbour Alison Mukwede says she felt “all the symptoms” and decided to self-medicate. “I could not go and be tested and have people laughing at me because of my status.
“I stayed indoors, took my herbs and steamed myself back to health,” she declared.
Medical practitioners are reluctant to comment on record about the effectiveness of herbal remedies in preventing and combating Covid-19.
A doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity said “While these herbs may play a part in boosting the immune system and therefore help in strengthening the body’s defences, there is no evidence yet that all these concoctions are completely effective.”
He added that the danger with home remedies is that they do not have dosages and therefore could lead to over use which can potentially lead to other health problems.
The World Health Organisation has cautioned against the use of unproven remedies while acknowledging that Africa has a history and wealth of herbal medicine use.
After Madagascar released Covid Organics, the WHO said "As efforts are underway to find treatment for COVID-19, caution must be taken against misinformation, especially on social media, about the effectiveness of certain remedies."
The organisation added that it recognizes that traditional medicine has many benefits, and Africa has a long history of traditional medicine.
It also said that medicinal plants such as artemisia are being considered as possible treatments for COVID-19 but first need to be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects.
These warnings are not likely to be heeded as more and more people turn to the nature for relief and healing.