Spells of moral panic and flashes of pride: Digital Kinois’ engagements with the search for a COVID-19 cure
Author: Katrien Pype, associate professor, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven University (Belgium). She can be contacted at email@example.com
Fieldsite: Kinshasa, the capital city of DR Congo, home to more than 10 million inhabitants. Katrien Pype has been carrying out ethnographic research on technology cultures in Kinshasa. Her primary interests are in media production and circulation. She asks how people embed information and communication technologies in the construction of their lifeworlds. The material has been collected via remote ethnography (Postill 2016), following public and private lists and publications on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and YouTube, and privately interacting with individuals over Messenger and WhatsApp. Most names of the interlocutors and commentators are pseudonyms, except for public figures. I have translated all posts from Lingala, French or KiKinois (Kinshasa’s slang) into English.
The search for an efficient cure for COVID-19 infections is a medical puzzle of global and local political significance. This is also readily felt in “Digital Kinshasa”, the online space of those who identify as a “Kinois”, an inhabitant of (global) Kinshasa. Digital Kinois ask questions such as: how are “black” bodies involved in this pandemic? What kind of expertise does DR Congo, and by extension Africa, have in this crisis? And, can African herbal treatments in COVID-19 play a role? The answers Digital Kinois formulate on these questions are informed by their understandings of global inequalities and racist stereotypes.
In the following, I describe online discussions about this topic of COVID-19 care in Africa that occurred between March 20 and May 12 2020. Several of these discussions have led to “digital moments”, periods of intensified digital content production around a topic. I have subdivided these into “spells of moral panic” and “flashes of African pride”. In these “moments”, motivated by disgust and rage at times, or by glorification and anticipation at other instances, a collective effervescence (Durkheim 1912) emerged, unifying Digital Kinois around a theme that mattered to them, while at the same time pushing forward debates, experimenting with new vernaculars, advancing new culture heroes, defying established figures of authority, and imagining new futures.
1st flash of African pride: “Blacks” coming to rescue the “White”
Cuban nurses and doctors arrived in Italy around March 24. So wrote Zacharie Bababaswe, an influential Congolese television journalist, with a short history as national deputy, on his Facebook wall:
The caption of the text showed a sad emoji, combined with the phrase that he was “feeling emotional”.
The subtext is that the world is witnessing a reversal of the “normal” relationships in global health. Black people are coming to the rescue of “Whites”. The question “Who would have believed so?” expresses joy in this disbelief; the hashtag #SimonKimbangu adds a political-religious layer to the statement. Simon Kimbangu, the so-called Black Jesus, is one of Congo’s (and by extension Africa’s) most important religious leaders. He is the founder of the Kimbanguist Church (official name: l’Eglise de Jésus-Christ sur la terre par son envoyé special Simon Kimbangu), arguably one of the largest African prophetic movements. Through his popularity as a healer, Kimbangu quickly became an icon of colonial resistance. Thus started a religious movement with strong political bearings. His prison notes, written while being detained by the Belgian colonial authorities, contain prophetic announcements of the liberation of the “Black race”, and of an increasing role for black people on the global stage. Bababaswe’s hashtag made an explicit connection between the Cuban doctors’ travel and Kimbangu’s prophecy. Kimbangu is heralded as a “father of the nation”, not only by Kimbanguist followers but by many non-Kimbanguist Congolese as well. It is thus not surprising that Bababaswe dropped Kimbangu’s name in a post celebrating Black pride (M’Bokolo and Sabakinu 2014, Mokoko-Gampiot 2017).
Bababaswe was not the only one taking up Kimbangu’s image; during the first Covid-19 weeks in Kinshasa (March 10-30), several Digital Kinois put Kimbangu’s iconic image as a temporary profile picture.
2nd flash of African pride: the hype around a Congolese herbal treatment
As from mid-April, and for about a fortnight, “Digital Kinshasa” was enchanted by the announcement of the herbal treatment COVID-organics (alternative names such as CVO and CVO-organics circulate as well). It all began with press reports, on April 19, about Andry Rajoelina, the president of Madagascar. He announced that COVID-organics would be offered freely to Malagasy schoolchildren in the fight against COVID-19. Malagasy media mentioned that the herbal remedy, already said to treat malaria, worked as prophylaxis, to prevent COVID-19 infections, and as a cure.
Kinois eagerly remediated news reports about the Malagasy policy and called on the Congolese President to follow. The news gave new bouts of African pride. President Rajoelina’s decision inspired hashtags calling for unity in Africa, sometimes the hashtags #StopCovid19 #AfriqueUnie (translated #UnitedAfrica); and #ThisTimeForAfrica could appear in one and the same post.
Heightening the excitement, people shared screenshots showing the Congolese President Tshisekedi and the Malagasy President Rajoelina teleconferencing about “solutions” for COVID-19 in Africa.
The “ya” is significant, is it is a form of address that expresses intimacy: “ya” is shorthand for “older brother” (< yaya). In this way, the poster expressed closeness to the President, and thus seemed to approve the latter’s actions. Such sign of endearment is remarkable in a climate of general distrust towards the national government as I already mentioned in previous posts (on news flows and on social distancing). Such expressions of closeness signalled that the COVID-organics hype could become a moment for the Congolese President to gain affect and support from the population.
One of my Facebook contacts remediated a Youtube link to an excerpt of the interaction between the two presidents and added the caption: “we will not wait for the WHO to tell us what to do, 60 years after independence” “DRC orders 5000 bottles of COVID-organics in Madagascar. Felix Tshisekedi.”
Again, happy faces and praying hands were punctuating the inscription.
In the midst of the hype that got so many Digital Kinois carried away, several people observed that international media were silencing COVID-organics. Digital Kinshasa agreed that this was due to cowardice of Global North media reporters, who did not dare to go against WHO decisions. Thus, rather quickly, the COVID-organics product became framed in a competition between the Global North and the Global South.
This inspired some to become self-confident and to write audacious statements. Rolly, for example, a tech entrepreneur and employee of one of DR Congo’s largest banks, published hashtags for the herbal remedy “#CVO” and “#COVID_19 Killer”, accompanying the message “the Malagasy drink, WHO will have to jazz along”.
Others called to set up an “African” agency of sanitary regulation and pharmacy. They did not only summon this on social media, but an online petition became popular as well. On its webpage, the WHO logo (OMS in French) and a photograph of three COVID-organics (here CVO) bottles, were juxtaposed, visually reminding visitors about the conflict.
By May 10, the petition counted already more than 23.000 signatures.
Some Kinois argued that the discussion between “Africa” and the WHO regarding COVID-organics boils down to a discussion over “tradition” versus “modernity”. Other posts took the news about the tisane as an opportunity to formulate new possible futures for the continent.
A professor of one of Kinshasa’s universities wrote:
“I am not an afro-pessimist. I am an afro-optimist. I was not trained to nurture despair. I have been trained to nurture hope. I believe in every African, weak and strong. I believe in every African because since for centuries our contribution to humanity has been underestimated. And the African underestimates himself until this very day. He thinks he is incompetent in every single thing. But above all, do not get discouraged, panic, or despair. He will become negative and will see everything in a negative way. And, yet, Africa is advancing. We have faced various epidemics already, and we have conquered these. We have the experience and expertise on the matter. We will confront and we will win. Long live Africa! Long live the battle against contemporary pandemics!”
Responses to this publication were along the same line. One of my friends commented:
“I am convinced that we will emerge victorious from this pandemic. Proud to be African”.
Someone else added:
“Really professor. You first need to win the war of the self-esteem, and the pandemic will not even take one month in Africa” ; “Viva Africa. We have all reasons to be proud. We should not look at Africa the way in which Western people show us. Europe is neither what we see in magazines. Let’s make the effort to discover the beauty, richesse, and diversity that we have. We do not need to go far, we just need to open our eyes harmoniously with oneself.”
Although international media ascribed ownership of COVID-organics to the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, Digital Kinois found a way to make it a “Congolese” invention. Very quickly, Digital Kinshasa argued that the real inventor was the Congolese Dr Jérôme Munyangi, who apparently worked in Madagascar at that time. Until the third week of April, Dr Munyangi had been an anonymous fellow-citizen to most Digital Kinois. By the end of the month, his name had become a household name, and most Kinois knew that he was a medical scientist, who had been trained at the University of Kinshasa, in Paris, and at the University of Ottawa. Some liked to emphasise that Dr Munyangi was an asylum seeker in Madagascar. This information only increased the excitement. News circulated that a few years ago, Dr Munyangi had been imprisoned for a few months in the DEMIAP building (Military Detection of Anti-Patriotic Activities), a detention centre in Kinshasa, reputed for the brutal tortures that detainees, often political prisoners, undergo there. A visa delivered by the French embassy, so the story goes, had enabled him to escape and travel to the neighbouring country of Central African Republic. From there, he could flee to Paris. Late 2018, he was invited in French TV news studios and featured in an activist documentary that attacked the pharmaceutical industry.
Several videos, some self-recorded, some parts of internet interviews with Kinois web journalists, circulated on social media. In these clips, Dr Munyangi explained that he had been arrested due to dark forces of the global pharmaceutical business, to whom his tea is a threat. The product provides a cheap and easily accessible solution for malaria, one of the biggest health problems in Africa, and thus would mean a significant loss for big pharma. He mentioned his eagerness to return to Kinshasa and consult the government in the COVID-19 battle but requested protection from the Congolese state.
Dr Munyangi became “the star of the moment” (“la star du moment”); his biography circulated in written form, sometimes some posters felt they had to correct the spelling of his name (not suffix “-i” but “-a”), or they added new information about his life; the overall mood was one of joy and anticipation; Dr Munyangi man was applauded and cheered upon. For the duration of the hype, Dr Munyangi almost became a new cultural hero, despite or maybe because WHO denied that the product had undergone the standard clinical testing.
Digital Kinois copied his call for protection in writing and added a critique addressed to the Congolese government for having failed to protect him in 2018. Now, so they wrote, the government could repair that mistake.
Most Digital Kinois did not question the therapeutic efficacy of COVID-organics, nor did they critically assess Dr Munyangi’s biography. Rather, they contributed to the promotion of the product by repeating the hashtags with the brand’s name, posting the Doctor’s name, and showing pictures of the bottles. One person wrote how Dr Munyangi “clearly had been contested too much by scientists who object the indisputable results of his field experiences,” while another commentator asked where he could find the plant, suggesting he was going to consume it.
By early May, some posts announced that Dr Muyangi was on his way to Kinshasa. In an effort to substantiate the message, some added a picture of Dr Munyangi in the airport of Charles de Gaulle, Paris. Hardly any of my social media contacts appeared to question the truthfulness or the foundations of these announcements; rather most people wrote congratulations, well wishes and expressions of gratitude for his assumed contributions to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his patriotism.
By the beginning of May, the hype suddenly fizzled out. I hardly saw any publications with his name nor with the product anymore. A few newspapers mentioned on their online platforms that Dr Munyangi was still in Paris. This information was rarely remediated on social media. One journal seemed to have interviewed him in early May. The article, entitled “Covid-19: announced to be in Kinshasa, Dr Muyangi is still in Paris” (May 4, translated by KP) was published online, though it didn’t get that much attention. I only found it when I googled his name, checking where he was. In the article, he was quoted rehearsing his patriotic stance (“I’m ready to go back to Kinshasa”), and confirming the therapeutic efficacy of COVID-organics (“I know that in China artemisia has been profusely used as a tisane in the struggle against COVID-19”). But, Dr Munyangi was reportedly very confused as to whether the Congolese state would assure his security.
A few days later, on May 7, one of my contacts forwarded me via Messenger screenshots of an article of the online journal Benin Times describing unwanted side effects Malagasy volunteers were experiencing because of COVID-organics, and which they had documented on social media. These effects varied from an imbalance of the general well-being, an itch all over the body, sudden bouts of increased temperature, to nightmares, nausea, headaches, and excessively urinating. None of my social media contacts circulated these screenshots on their (semi-)public pages, walls, profiles or statuses. The sheer fact that I received this information privately, via the Messenger tool, is significant: it speaks to the weighing of the publishability of content. The news report obviously countered the excitement that had fueled a (by then already faded) hype in “Digital Kinshasa”, and my contact, who hardly posts anything political on his social media platforms, told me he would risk insults of being “anti-patriotic” or being a party spoiler if he published these online.
3rd flash of African pride: applauding African expertise and innovation
Many online publications expressed an urge for a re-appraisal of local scientific knowledge and innovation. For Kinois web users, COVID-19 provides an opportunity to showcase “African” knowledge and expertise. Reports about contributions of Congolese scientists (even if they live abroad) were readily remediated, and these experts were explicitly identified as “African”, even if they were working in the Global North.
For example, on April 12, CODE 243, which collects online national and international news about DR Congo (243 is the international area code), announced the contribution of a US-based Congolese engineer
By 11 May, the post had gathered 1.500 likes; 168 comments and has been shared 323 times. Here as well, just like in various posts on the case of Dr Munyangi, most commentators addressed their writings to Dr Mubenga herself, seemingly assuming that she would be reading these posts. They congratulated her, thanked her, or advised her on how to remain a good Christian amidst this difficult challenge. A significantly smaller amount of comments was negative: one commentator seemed to be disturbed by the mention of the First Lady (interpreted as djalelo, sycophancy) in the message; someone else accused the engineer of using this crisis to get rich.
In similar efforts to provide exposure to “African” contributions to COVID-19 care, Digital Kinois gladly shared reports about schools and institutions in Kinshasa producing medical equipment, such as ventilators and mouth masks.
This collection of pictures solicited unanimous comments of congratulations.
Online content detailing innovations by other African engineers and inventors were remediated as well. Examples of these are a Youtube interview with Dr Valentin Agon, a Beninese doctor who created the drug apivirine, and which reportedly has successfully been used to treat COVID-19 patients; newspaper articles talking about Senegalese engineers designing respiratory devices; or an online article describing Ghanaian drones helping to diagnose the population. Such publications resonated with a general mood that “Africans need to take care of themselves” – an oft-repeated statement online. The already mentioned hashtag “#AfriqueUnie” (translation #AfricaUnited) was used in these remediations.
1st spell of moral panic: the risk of Kongo bololo
As of the 10th of March, so in the very first weeks that COVID-19 had arrived in Kinshasa, pictures of Kongo bololo circulated in Digital Kinshasa. Just like COVID-organics, Kongo bololo is a tisane (herbal tea) based on local herbs. Many online commentators – most of them without a bio-medical scientific background, argued that Kongo bololo would help in the prevention ànd cure of COVID-19.
The tea is made of leaves of the plant Vernonia amygdalina, and has ethnic significance. It is mainly associated with Kongo ethnic groups but is also part of the cuisine of ethnic groups of the former Equatorial province (north-west Congo). When some commentators (intentionally or not) changed the spelling from “Kongo” to “Congo” (as the nation-state is called), they suddenly situated the recipe on a national, Congolese scale.
Some online commentators applauded Kongo bololo as “the most efficient vaccine”; others heralded the local origins of the cure, and their familiarity with it. One of my friends wrote:
“We have grown up with it! Return to authenticity; this is from our ancestors”.
The shout “return to authenticity” echoes former President Mobutu’s program to re-instore local tradition. That and the reference to the ancestors are discursive efforts to revalue cultural heritage in this global event.
In the two following weeks, I would see on Facebook stories, Instagram Stories, or Whatsapp status updates, short clips or photographs of boiling cooking pots with leaves (some with lemon parts).
Several comments were more sceptical and responded: “Let’s wait for the Chinese vaccine!”
Yet, already in the last week of March, it became clear that the recipe did more harm than anything else. Warnings about deaths triggered by Kongo bololo quickly circulated online:
Other publications detailed that a mother and her 3 small children had died because she had prepared a mixture of Kongo bololo and lemon. Reactions pointed at the toxic combination of Kongo bololo and lemon, knowledge apparently not that widely spread. Someone wrote:
“Yes, she has mixed bololo with lemon; you should never do that!”
Someone else responded:
“Let’s be careful, smart, and wise in the usage of indigenous products and non-verified pharmaceuticals. We will not tire denounce this practice. Please let us be wise and intelligent.”
2nd spell of moral panic: fear of black bodies as guinea pigs for the “White” global health economy
On April 4, Djora, an unemployed man with a degree in mechanical engineering wrote on his Facebook page:
“for everything, we (the Congolese) are waiting for “the West” (l’Occident) – ventilators, masks, thermoflash (digital thermometer), disinfecting and testing material, chloroquine, azithromycin, money; but: if the West proposes to do a test, then you think he will kill you – he could have put that in the mask”
Djora pitted “the Congolese” community against an imagined “West”. He observed an ambiguity in “Congolese” attitudes: on the one hand, he identified an accepted dependency, when it concerns equipment; though when “the West” wants to test (and thus Congolese could contribute to the advance of scientific knowledge and the development of medical treatment), then “the Congolese” suspect that “he” (supposedly “the white man from the West”) wants to kill “the Congolese”. With “he could have put that in the mask”, Djora reminds his readers that “the white man” could find other insidious ways to kill “Congolese”, for example by putting toxins in masks that are imported in DR Congo.
Djora commented on fears and distrust about global health initiatives that have animated Congolese populations for a long time. Many Kinois hold that medical interventions sponsored and/or carried out by people from the Global North are part of an evil plan plotted by institutions such as the World Bank, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Western governments, and the Congolese state. Extractive procedures, such as collecting blood and DNA, and intrusive practices like injecting drugs are suspected to be nothing else than hidden strategies to steal patients’ fertility and life force, thus boycotting African futures. This fear was most poignantly expressed in messages that mobilize people to refuse any COVID-19 vaccine testing in DR Congo. Most Kinois did not doubt that the testing of any COVID-19 vaccine would mean sacrificing African lives. And, as I would read in various online comments, Bill Gates became the anti-hero, the villain.
Djora’s post solicited many reactions, of which I copy a few here (translated by me). Each of these speaks poignantly to the distrust and indignation that built up on social media platforms:
“There are many scientists in Africa as well– chemists, biologists, doctors, etc… they can also conceive something useful. let’s take care of ourselves: if the vaccine is important to protect the Africans, well it should be first introduced where the pandemic has affected the most.“
“Well-organised charity begins with oneself.”
“You forgot to add one important detail: they imported the virus as well.”
Djora’s publication and the ensuing comments were immediate reactions on a declaration made by the Congolese microbiologist Dr Muyembe, coordinator of the national response to COVID-19, during a press conference. He had proudly announced that “DR Congo had been chosen” to partake in testing experiments for a vaccine.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kinshasa, Dr Muyembe had been granted a lot of credit in Kinshasa because of his impressive work during several Ebola pandemics in the previous years. This has given him a worldwide reputation as well. In 2014, he was one of the experts sent by WHO to Nigeria in order to coordinate the Ebola-campaign in west Africa. Such was his renown, that he was very much of a local hero. However, the announcement that Congolese citizens would become guinea pigs radically turned him into an anti-hero.
On the internet (but likewise in Kinshasa’s streets and houses), many people quickly engaged in conspiratorial thinking, even though similar tests were already going on in the US, China and Europe; and DR Congo would be one of many countries engaged in further testing.
Someone wrote, “Muyembe announces, most probably from the premises of the embassy of the United States, that we have been chosen …”. The commentator emphasised that Dr Muyembe was delivering this message from a peculiar location. Dr Muyembe was not in his office, the National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB), nor was he speaking from a Congolese state building. Rather, he was “most probably” on “the premises of the embassy of the United States”. The poster thus suggested that the US government had a hidden agenda in this testing.
A young woman, who described herself as a medical doctor, with a “degree from a Canadian university,” thus claiming certain authority in the matter, added fuel to the conspiracy discourse:
“No no no, suddenly a new disease has appeared, and they find a vaccine in 6 months? this story is fishy.”
Some commentators stated firmly that they would not allow tests to be carried out on their bodies or on those of their family members:
The following image appeared on various platforms:
This poster is packed with symbolic significance: the image of the black child combines meanings such as vulnerability, innocence, and African futures. In its gesture of calmly watching the shoulder, the child seems to be trustingly anticipating a vaccination. The contours of the child’s image show the geographical map of Africa, thus communicating that the vaccines are a risk to the whole continent; the black glove evokes the anonymous danger, and the syringe and needle are entering into the African body (here symbolised by the map). The colours are well chosen – red, black, and white. Although it is unclear who designed the poster, and whether the designers are aware of “central-African” colour symbolism, the triad black-white-red does not seem a coincidence. In The Forest of Symbols, Turner writes that “black” is often used to evoke death, sterility or witchcraft (1967: 79); “red” is more ambiguous, as it can mean “life”, but also death. “White” stands for life, fertility and protection. Such symbolism adds another meaning to the thick white line of the map, the black glove, and the red of the words “Africa” and “guinea pigs”.
A rare voice warned others “to be careful of complotistes”, adding that “China and the US are already testing potential vaccines”. Rolly, the tech engineer I already quoted above, wrote “just like you all, I am indignant. But before I react, I need to know the list of countries chosen for the test of this vaccine. @COVID19” Someone else commented “we are not the only ones who will be tested … furthermore, how has Ebola been conquered? Thanks to a vaccine, created by whom? Professor Muyembe.” Yet, such publications did not get any approval, nor did they gain any traction.
Anger and disgust translated into wild accusations, threats and insults. Someone wrote that Dr Muyembe should start testing the vaccine on his wife and children, and then on members of the government. Someone else interpreted Dr Muyembe’s utterance as a consequence of “the transformative power of power”: “once they have power, they become stupid. They lose all senses.”
Others were more nuanced: “we do not refuse the vaccine, we refuse the clinical tests with the vaccine!”
When Mamam Mélanie, a fifty-something mother of two, who spent half of her life in the United States, but settled back in Kinshasa a decade ago, shared an article from a local newspaper, entitled “RDC: an American clinic will pay 1100$ to volunteers to test a vaccine against …”, the reactions of her contacts illustrated the indignation and confusion: “this is collective suicide; Bill Gates should first experiment on himself.” or “they know that the poor and the poor black people will take the money but by selling their souls”; someone else asked: “does this mean that the vaccine is already in Kinshasa?”; while another poster reminded: “anyone who will accept, is really ignorant. You will sacrifice your life for 1100$.” Someone else simply stated “Jesus”.
As part of the anti-vaccine mobilisation, a hyperlink to a digital petition circulated, inviting people to sign now “no! regarding anti-COVID 19 vaccination tests in Africa” (translated from the French, KP). By May 10, an automatic counter on the petition’s website announced more than 87.000 signatures.
A Facebook post juxtaposed a scan of a letter issued by a Congolese representative of the World Bank, next to a video of Dr Muyembe at a press conference. The document, signed by “the administrator for the Democratic Republic of Congo”, has a letterhead of the World Bank in Washington, and is addressed to the (Congolese) Minister of Finances. The letter confirms that the advisory council of the World Bank has approved a loan of 23,6 million US$, and a similar gift (another 23,6 million US$). The goal is to assist the capacities of the Congolese state to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we can read.
The poster did not seem to question the authenticity of the document; and, by publishing the two documents side by side, the commentator suggested that the millions of dollars went straight to Dr Muyembe (rather than to the Congolese government). The caption stated it almost explicitly: “All of that because of an interest in millions”.
Most comments on this publication were dominated by resentment. Someone wrote, “shameful”, while another person added, “un négro de service” (a black man, working for others), although one commentator brought some cheer in the exchange, by proposing “and what if we would all cough on him?”
As Digital Kinshasa went into a panic mode, voices of international leaders became part of the resistance narrative. First and foremost, the French medical doctor Didier Raoult became an oft-cited figure.
“the French doctor Didier Rauoult calls for the Africans not to take the vaccine of Bill Gates to protect against the coronavirus”; “les occidentaux” (people from the West) why did they not start with Spain, Italy and France where you have so many cases? ;
Didier Raoult has gained fame in Kinshasa because he insists on chloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19 patients. In addition, he identifies quinine, a natural resource available in many African countries, as a potential cure for a global disaster, thus allowing for “Africa” to enter as a rescuer in the COVID-19 imagination. Furthermore, Dr Raoult is heralded as a rebel within the French public health system, a position which Kinois appreciate.
Barack Obama, a hero for many Kinois as well, was brought in the resistance against the testing as well. An eagerly remediated post quotes Barack Obama supposedly addressing African publics:
“I would be an accomplice if I do not denounce this maleficent act that white people want to enact on Africans. Above all, I may be born in the United States, but I am an African by blood. I will not allow white people to kill Africans with their toxic vaccines, I ask Africans to be intelligent, and to watch carefully that the vaccines against the corona-virus will not arrive on African territory, or that they will extinguish us, I want this message to be spread everywhere, to wake up African minds so that the vaccines do not arrive in Africa.”
In order to add more weight to the message, the text was accompanied by a photograph of Obama with one tear rolling over his cheek.
This spell of moral panic ended with a minor flash of pride and encouragement. The coordinating office of the fight against COVID-19 published a clip of 2:23 minutes on social media in which Dr Muyembe provided more transparency regarding the vaccine testing. At the beginning of the message, he mentioned that he had seen various messages on social media talking about COVID-19 testing in DR Congo. Speaking from his office at the INRB, he expressed the need to “calm” the population and assured that, as a Congolese citizen himself, he would never allow that the Congolese would be used as guinea pigs. Rather, if there was going to be testing on the territory, it would be after the current tests in the United States and in China generated good results.
Various captions celebrated this announcement as a victory of social media: “the power of social media” (la force des résaux sociaux”); or “the collective of social media has pushed #Muyembe to shed more lights on his propositions qualified as testing efforts” (“la composante Réseaux sociaux pousse #Muyembe à apporter les éclairages sur ces propos qualifies de ballon d’essai).
Reactions to this and similar digital content celebrated the influence (Digital) Kinois seemed to have on domestic politics. Some mentioned that Congolese have become more demanding, and do not remain passive in issues of health politics. Often, such comments were accompanied by mobilizing shouts to stay vigilant; or reminded others that “we are in a war against Macron and Trump. This war has just begun, stop whining, we are now in the right position”. For some commentators, Dr Muyembe’s statement evidenced that the population was more powerful than the Congolese President, who – after all – remained silent amidst this whole moral panic. Still, others did not believe his words and continued to what can be called a witch hunt. Since the moral panic about vaccine testing, Dr Muyembe has received death threats and has temporarily suspended his participation in live press conferences.
The above described “moments”, of moral panic and of African pride, contribute to the unfolding of the COVID-19 crisis in Kinshasa. They have social significance, as they give definite form to experiences, sentiments and expectations of Kinois, and those who identify as such. The following can be concluded. Social networks are places for:
- Mobilisation for an African-centered future: A figure of colonial resistance (Simon Kimbangu); “African” plants; a form of political participation (petitions); and a renewed interest in “African futures” combine.
- The expression of global critique: The absence or presence of care facilities and expertise are interpreted as manifestations of racial imaginaries that govern global health. Most understand the COVID-19 testing as a new articulation of old forms of exploitation. In such a narrative, Bill Gates, the WHO, and the World Bank are dangerous actors, teaming up with their “own”, Dr Muyembe.
- A rewriting of the “saviour narrative”: Some suggest that this crisis provides as an opportunity for “Black” (Cuban included) or “African” experts to take on the saviour role. A narrative of confidence and optimism, arguing that Africans can care for themselves and that they even can rescue the White, reverberates. Social media then become platforms to showcase “African” inventions or contributions made by “African” engineers and medical doctors, yet who remain largely invisible on the global scale.
- Attempts to arrive at political change: The “spells” of moral panic and “flashes” of African pride are socially productive. These emotions generate excitement, enthusiasm, and disgust – effects that have immediate political effects. The effervescence generated digitally is performative: excitement, agitation, and enthusiasm unify people around common goals. Whether the public demand more clarity on Congolese involvement in COVID-19 testing, or whether people want to protect one another from false information (as in the case of Kongo bololo’s therapeutic work), they are making efforts to impact on their immediate surroundings, and on those of their (virtual) contacts. At times, effervescence is disruptive, however, when it disturbs political alliances, pushes leaders to backtrack on certain decisions, or changes political traditions.
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