While responding to the reading of Uganda’s 2020/2021 national budget on the 11/6/2020, President Museveni revealed that some of the 697 people tested recently, had been erroneously classified as having tested positive for COVID19 whereas they were negative. I don’t know why the President was surprised by this phenomenon of false positives (read fake positive results) and false negatives (read fake negative results). Those two concepts have graced the cover story the COVID19 pandemic since January, 2020. Perhaps the only thing that beats fake COVID results to smithereens is the fake COVID news.
Fake news has stood out as the spindle on which the COVID story went crazy and wheedled millions of rumor thirsty people around the world. Many fake stories about COVID have refused to go away despite the best efforts to sanitize the public information space. For example, some people in Africa still believe that drinking alcohol or inhaling hot steam can protect them from catching COVID whereas not. In hindsight, even the fake COVID results which the President complained about constituted fake news at the time they were delivered by the Ministry of Health. This is the counterfeit culture that I am talking about and fake news has become its new front runner.
It must be common knowledge by now that many countries in the COVID19 hotspots like USA, France, UK, Italy, Spain, China, South Africa have reported more fake positive COVID19 results than Uganda. The only difference is that the other countries have also reported fake negative COVID19 results which we have not. This is what should surprise the President and all of us because generally speaking fakes do not discriminate, they cut across. I suspect that someone was being fake in holding back the fake negative COVID19 results. Medical experts tell us the positive and negative results have an equal preponderance of occurrence, so why do we have one and not the other.
The President believes that the fake COVID19 results were caused by the negligence and fatigue of some of the health workers. This may be true and excusable to a point if say one worker was forced to operate a machine which is ordinarily handled by 5 people or he or she worked without food or rest for days on end. However, a flip of the coin should have the concerned health workers agonizing about a possible 5-7-year jail term for their efforts. This is if they should wake up one day and fail to answer to charges of neglect of public duty or charges in relation to negligent acts likely to spread infectious disease. That should be the case if they were unprofessional and negligent in collecting and handling the test samples or if they were simply clumsy when they mislabeled the test results. Nevertheless, in such a case, I would still say that their negligence would be symptomatic of their incompetence which is associated with the rampaging examination malpractice in Uganda and is known to uncover numerate fake academic qualifications. The situation is so dire that sometimes one should be forgiven if they think that fake academic papers are the general rule rather than the exception. This is how far we have sunk in the inglorious counterfeit culture and we are still counting. The culture of counterfeiting is so deep-rooted in Uganda that even when we had not registered a single COVID19 case in March 2020, some incredible Ugandans still made it to the international news for administering a fake coronavirus vaccine. ( http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/world/2020-03-10-Ugandans-arrested-for-giving-fake-coronavirus-vaccine )
Right now, Ugandans are ruminating about an uncertain future which is caused by the COVID19 instigated lockdown of the economy. With a projected growth rate of only 3% this year, the only predictable thing about our economic survival is that it is unpredictable. The prima which can surely spoke the spike in the COVID19 cases is the counterfeit or fake COVID test kits, protective gear/equipment, masks and hand sanitizers. At the Anti Counterfeit Network (ACN), we conducted a limited online survey involving 500 respondents between 31st March to 10th May, 2020. We wanted to find out which hand sanitizers the respondents were using. The results showed that 40% of the respondents were using fake sanitizers which were not on the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) approved list. This did not surprise us because we know that the counterfeit culture in Uganda is alive and well even as we suffer with the COVID19 lockdown.
The President did not spare the laboratories that spewed out the fake positive COVID19 results for bad workmanship. But in doing so, the President left the back door open to more scrutiny and investigation of the issue. Whereas I cannot free the labs from all blemish, the reality is that some of the base materials used in the labs make it to the fakes list as well. For example, the reagents used to extract the DNA of the virus or the transport media used to preserve the virus before testing which are exclusively imported are also susceptible to faking. We need to establish whether fake base materials in the lab were responsible for the fake COVID19 results before we shoot the messengers. If we make a wrong diagnosis of the problem, we cannot find and administer the right treatment.
Unfortunately, we are evidently paying little or no attention to the only thing that can make our COVID situation worse. That’s why we do not even have a data bank on counterfeits or fake products in the country. Moreover, any attempt at institutional research of this subject in the past has appeared to be slipshod. In 2015, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) estimated that 55% of products in our supermarkets were fake. However, a news story carrying the same estimate was quick to note that most Ugandans believed that up to 80% of the products on the market were fake. That caveats the dependability of that research but it is the only Government research available.
This state of affairs guarantees a bleak future for our protection against dangerous and ineffective products and yet we perennially continue to climb down the stairs. Fake anti COVID products and services may be ignored today, but they still present a potent way of nullifying and putting to waste all the known measures to fight COVID like testing, treatment, staying at home, washing your hands, sanitizing, social distancing etc.
What we don’t realize is that these anti COVID fake products join an unholy union with other fake products which are now prevalent on the market, thanks to our collective negligence. Together these fake products now sustain an underground economy which continues to ravage an already stressed economy. This will not put to paid our Shs 45 trillion budget this financial year unless we stop just wishing away the debilitating and concealed negative effects of counterfeit to our health and wealth as a nation. Counterfeits should be able to make it to our National budget presentations because they are capable of making an unnoticed appearance and wipe out our coveted budget estimates. Counterfeiters wear the badge of economic hitmen, they should be treated as such!
We take the view that Counterfeits also present a public health crisis just like COVID. But we don’t understand why we fervently fight one vice and ignore the other. In fact, across the board, counterfeits kill far more people than COVID19 may ever kill. For example, the World Health Organization estimates that fake antimalarials alone kill more than 700,000 Africans every year. This is without considering the millions of deaths caused by other fake medicines, fake electronics, fake cosmetics, fake automobile parts, fake food etc. most of these deaths occur in Africa. Therefore, the COVID19 deaths worldwide now standing at 400,000 considerably pale against the deaths caused by fake products annually.
We must understand that the globalization of trade and communication has offered unparalled opportunities for organized crimes to increase their economic influence in the world through illicit trade and counterfeiting. This means that the globalization of health pandemics like COVID is also benefiting from the existing structures of these organized crime syndicates.
It is a pity that world over, many citizens have increased their uptake of fake products and services, knowingly or unknowingly. We attribute this, to a large extent, to the consumers lack of awareness of the concealed dangers of fake products and services. Unfortunately, counterfeiting is still considered a midget issue which is yet to occupy its rightful place in the stable of critical public thinking. We at the ACN are coalescing affected stakeholders to reverse this trend.
The marginal propensity to consume counterfeit products and services has raised the trade in counterfeits globally. This trade is expected to peak at 1.82 trillion USD this year up from 1.2 trillion USD in 2017. This increase published by the Global Brand Counterfeiting Report 2018 indicates an increase of 50% in the vice in a space of just 3 years. This is an alarming statistic in itself and it poses an existential threat to humanity. Because of the enormous amounts of fake products and services we have become adept to consuming, we may one day turn up in the form of some unrecognizable aliens or counterfeit humans. We can’t stop at blaming the fake COVID19 results on the flourishing counterfeit culture, we must endeavor to stop counterfeiting all together.
By Fred Muwema
Director Legal & Corporate Affairs
Anti Counterfeit Network Africa