Namibia has popped up in German media over the last few weeks. In late May, German and Namibian government representatives agreed on the so-called “reconciliation agreement”, acknowledging that Germany committed genocide between 1904 and 1908 in what was then the colony of German South West Africa, now Namibia. According to the agreement, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to Namibia and offer an official apology for the genocide. The federal government will pay additional aid for social projects, ostensibly for the sake of reconciliation.
Heike Becker is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa.
A short time later, this breakthrough in cultures of remembrance was overshadowed by further news: Namibia was going to be hit extremely hard by a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in June and July 2021. There were points when, in relation to the country’s population, more people were infected in Namibia than anywhere else on the African continent. The COVID-related death rate was three times higher than in neighbouring South Africa, which itself was also badly affected.
While Germany and Namibia were still negotiating over recognition of the colonial genocide, prominent critics of the agreement such as Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro and Gaob Afrikaner, a member of the Nama Traditional Authority, as well as Namibian government negotiator Zedekia Ngavirue died of COVID-19, and the Namibian President Hage Geingob was sick. That seems almost symbolic! Why is the country that emerged from the first two waves of the pandemic largely unscathed last year, with only a few infected people, now so badly hit?
“We Never Expected That”
When I asked Namibian friends at the beginning of the third wave why they thought the global pandemic was now affecting Namibia so severely, I kept getting the answer that the current crisis was owed above all the widespread unwillingness among the population to get vaccinated. A sometimes vehement unwillingness to get vaccinated is also widespread in Europe, but why does it have such a strong impact in Namibia, where the small number of available vaccine doses meant that only a small portion of the population could be vaccinated, and yet the vaccination centres remained largely empty?
A few prominent Namibians campaigned for vaccinations, and there were increasingly urgent appeals on social media to leading politicians, not least
President Hage Geingob, to lead by example. In May 2021, the presidential couple took a trip to the inauguration of the re-elected Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and subsequently tested positive for COVID. Only then did Geingob announce that he would be vaccinated.
He and his wife Monica have now issued appeals to the public, and the dynamic first lady in particular has made several public statements about the COVID pandemic. “We never expected that”, Namibia’s President explained according to a report in the German-language Namibian daily Allgemeine Zeitung on 24 June 2021.
The Deadly Third Wave
On 21 June, the Ministry of Health reported 1518 new infections. The extremely high rate of 40 percent positive test results (a total of 3,794 tests were carried out on the day mentioned), which even increased in the days afterwards, was alarming. The number of new infections also continued to rise; on some days in late June and early July, over 2,500 new infections were reported.
A total of 1,164 Namibians officially died in connection with COVID-19 at the end of the third week of June, while an infection had been detected in 74,682 patients since March 2020. By 25 July, these numbers had risen to a total of 2,811 deceased and 117,000 infected. In the third week of June, 504 patients were treated in state and private hospitals nationwide, 76 of them in intensive care units. These numbers may seem low, but they have to be seen in the context of Namibia’s demographics, with a total population of just two and a half million people, an average age of just over 20 years, and a life expectancy below 70. In that light, the numbers are indeed shockingly high.
At this point, Namibia’s deadly third wave of COVID-19 seems to have peaked. On 21 July, the Ministry of Health reported 495 new infections nationwide, a day later there were 609. That represents about a third of the daily reported figures only two weeks earlier. Although not yet completely stable, the decline is a welcome development. The health care situation has eased somewhat. The federal government and other international donors have also supplied protective equipment, medical masks, and ventilators.
Although Namibia’s COVID crisis has lost some of its acute horror, it will have devastating effects in the medium- and long-term. Above all, the wave has hurt the already most disadvantaged people in the country, where social inequality is hardly less severe than in neighbouring South Africa, which has the greatest margin of inequality in terms of income and property worldwide. Many people who earn a little money with jobs outside the small formal sector, e.g. as operators of roadside stalls, have lost their livelihood.
The third wave has above all placed the region around the capital Windhoek in a mood of fear and horror. Everyone has lost family members or friends, and the virus appears ubiquitous. Infected people often do not know where they got infected. All sections of the population are affected. Those who died of COVID include a judge, a well-known engineer, a retired general and former police chief, business people, intellectuals, a well-known actor and dramaturge, socially engaged activists, well-known politicians, and other figures in public life. In contrast to Europe, it was not predominantly the very old who died in Namibia, but also a larger number of middle-aged people.
The regional distribution of infections and deaths is uneven and mainly affects Central Namibia and the port city of Walvis Bay. This is largely due to the fact that the capital and the port city are more closely integrated into regional and global mobility networks. Local, regional, and global mobility in Namibia, as elsewhere, has contributed to the spread of the virus. After decades of labour- and rural-urban migration, Windhoek and Walvis Bay are now cosmopolitan communities inhabited by people from all over the country. Historically, Central Namibia is also the area in which the majority of the Nama and Herero communities affected by the genocide lived.
What Factors Should We Consider?
Geingob mentioned during a visit to Katutura Hospital that the massive spike in cases was probably due to the cold temperatures of the southern winter. The time of year may play a role, but that alone does not explain the exponential rise in infections and deaths. After initial official announcements that the Delta variant had not been detected in Namibia, the spread of this particularly contagious mutation was confirmed at the beginning of July. By that point, Delta was already a driving force in South Africa’s third wave, which proved similarly catastrophic.
The President also indicated that one reason for the high death rate was that many people pursued treatment too late. This, however, is an extremely questionable assumption, especially in critical cases when patients need an oxygen supply. Because there is definitely a lack of equipment in Namibia, where in some clinics existing hospital beds cannot be used at all because the technology is inadequate, there was also a lack of medical oxygen equipment and oxygen itself.
There were repeated allegations in the press that these were the result of bad planning in the health care system. However, it is also a question of money. Namibian friends from the more affluent classes reported that they were able to secure a life-saving oxygen supply for seriously ill family members by paying for it privately. For most Namibians, this is of course not possible.
An Unvaccinated Population
Many Namibians attribute the shocking development of the third wave primarily to the problem of vaccinations. On the one hand, Namibia, like the rest of the African continent and the entire Global South, is affected by the geopolitical injustice of vaccine access—the “global vaccine apartheid” in which some rich countries have stocked up on more vaccines than they will ever need. This global injustice affects all countries in Africa, but Namibia (and also South Africa) are ironically more affected than very poor countries, as they are considered “middle-income countries” by the COVAX initiative launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and thus only benefit to a limited extent. At the same time, these countries are more exposed to the pandemic through tourism and other forms of global mobility, and were unable to maintain the tough lockdown from March to June 2020 without exposing their fragile economies to ruin.
Socio-economic inequality and geopolitical causes are important, but they alone do not explain the dramatic development in Namibia. On 19 March 2021, Esther Muinjangue, a long-time activist in the genocide reparations movement, parliamentarian, and deputy health minister of the country, was the first Namibian to be vaccinated with the Sinopharm vaccine developed in China. Muinjangue emphasized the necessary role model function of public figures, and argued that politicians and other celebrities ought to lead by example and get vaccinated. In an interview, Muinjangue stated that she was also nervous before the first vaccination and encouraged all Namibians to get vaccinated anyway. Unfortunately, Muinjangue and other politicians responsible for the Ministry of Health were left on their own with their personal “vaccination campaign”.
Even nurses, who, as frontline health workers, should actually be given preferential vaccination, were clearly reluctant. By mid-April, 860 of Namibia’s 12,567 nurses were vaccinated. The acting Secretary General of the Namibia Nurses Union (NANU), Junias Shilunga, said at the time that too many nurses were sceptical about the vaccination and many of his colleagues were still being informed by the government about the vaccines and their possible side effects. Shilunga appealed to his colleagues to get vaccinated and asked the government to provide special training programmes for health workers to properly educate local communities. But even the few vaccine doses that the country had available from March 2021 were hardly used and the vaccination centres were not well-received, making an organized vaccination campaign impossible.
The reports of rare, dangerous side effects of individual vaccines, especially embolisms after vaccinations with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, led to considerable opposition and, in some cases, abstruse conspiracy theories, which at least in part came to Southern Africa from North America via social media, often transferred by Christian fundamentalist networks. For example, when aid deliveries were flown in from China at the height of the pandemic, many people watching videos of the deliveries commented that the loading personnel’s protective clothing probably meant that the virus had been flown into Namibia. For a long time, there were also voices that the vaccines themselves contributed to the spread of the virus. My Namibian Master’s student Bayron van Wyk described it as follows:
“What did come up was the misconception that the vaccine causes blood clotting, resulting in death. As a result, many people were hesitant because they did not have trust in it. Many are also now saying that the current high death rates is due to increasing amounts of people receiving the jab!”
In the meantime a greater willingness to vaccinate appears to have emerged, but it will hardly be enough to stop the deadly third wave. That said, it could at least protect Namibia against another such crisis in the future. At the moment, however, the problem of global vaccination justice is growing. In Windhoek there were no longer any vaccines available for initial vaccinations. Further vaccinations have since been made possible through aid deliveries from various countries, and the federal government has also promised deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but only in August. Aid deliveries are only a drop in the bucket. It is therefore urgently necessary that Namibia benefit from campaigns for international vaccination justice as a matter of priority—and soon.
Colonialism, Apartheid, and Public Health
There were always voices who suspected that the deaths were caused by poisoning, which was linked to the history of the genocide and the controversial “reconciliation agreement”. On Facebook, for example, some Namibians asked why Herero elders and leaders in particular were affected by COVID: was there a political calculation behind it?
Such assumptions should be taken seriously in light of Namibia’s history of colonialism and apartheid. Historian Gesine Krüger has detailed how the motif of poisoning appeared in the Herero reservations as early as the late 1930s to describe the consequences of war and expropriation, impoverishment, and general social “disorder”. In addition, there is a long tradition of distrust towards medical measures, from compulsory examinations of unmarried female migrants for venereal diseases in the interwar period to the ostensibly “sanitary” reasons behind the forced relocation of Windhoek’s black population in the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the compulsory veterinary vaccinations of cattle herds in the 1970s or the violent history of the late Apartheid era under the notorious South African military doctor Wouter Basson, who killed captured liberation fighters with chemicals.
The Pandemic and the Genocide Agreement
As a result of the pandemic, negotiations on the so-called “reconciliation agreement”, which German and Namibian government representatives agreed on at the end of May after almost six years of negotiations, have been suspended. In Namibia, the agreement was heavily criticized by representatives of the victims’ descendants.
A decisive voice was that of Vekuii Rukoro, Ovaherero traditional leader and lawyer, who called the agreement an “insult” and announced further public protests against the visit of the German Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Rukoro died less than three weeks later in Windhoek. On 24 June, Zedekia Ngavirure, the former diplomat who led the negotiations with Germany for Namibia, also died. The death of Rukoro triggered a major shock. Rukoro had been “Paramount Chief” of a section of the Ovaherero since 2014, and was characterized by his energetic, and in Namibia quite provocative leadership style in the movement for a comprehensive apology and reparations for the German genocide during the colonial period. The 66-year-old died in the early hours of 18 June. The death of Gaob Eduard Afrikaner, a Nama traditional leader, followed just a few hours later. He was also an important advocate of genocide apologies and reparations.
The consequences of the COVID death of important protagonists of the post-colonial reconciliation with Germany cannot yet be foreseen, but the ongoing debate has unquestionably been thrown back. The sometimes-divided movements that have campaigned for a comprehensive apology from Germany and reparations payments for many years will have to reorganize themselves after losing such important leaders. Where things go from here will only be seen after the end of the current terrible pandemic wave.