The Chinese government’s Xinhua news agency celebrated the alleged embrace of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a term that covers a wide variety of herbal and other natural treatments, in Africa on Thursday as the continent prepares to diagnose and treat Chinese coronavirus cases.
The Chinese Communist Party, which expects TCM to become a $430-billion industry by the end of the year, has claimed the upwards of 90 percent of Chinese coronavirus patients in some of the provinces hardest hit by the pandemic received TCM treatments before being proclaimed “cured” of viral infection. It is using that case to promote TCM practices — which include acupuncture, drinking herbal soups, and meditation — to African communities, where scientifically accepted medical treatments are in short supply and often met with skepticism.
“Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is gaining popularity in the continent as it proves effective in treating coronavirus patients,” Xinhua declared on its English-language front page Thursday, citing medical officials in Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana, and Ethiopia, among others. The countries have at press time confirmed a combined 33 cases at press time; Zimbabwe has yet to document a case.
Dr. Raphael Mallaba, a Tanzanian medical official, appears in the Xinhua article claiming that “it was demonstrated in various studies in China that for patients at the early stage of infections, application of the TCM alone was sufficient to reduce fevers, symptoms and viral loads, while for those in severe conditions, the use of TCM, in conjunction with various antiviral protocols, could help patients recover.”
Xinhua did not offer any of the specific studies Mallaba claimed existed. The official nonetheless said he hoped “more countries, particularly African countries, will take note of this worthy experience and do more research to help their own citizens.”
The article then cites others throughout Africa using TCM for other ailments.
“Constant acupuncture therapy has enabled me to lose weight and cured my legs, and it brings hope to my life again,” a Ghanian quoted in the article reportedly said.
The Xinhua push for more TCM practices in Africa is part of a larger effort to normalize and increase the profits of the TCM industry, which directly enriches the Chinese Communist Party. China Daily, another Party publication, listed several treatments that allegedly helped the people of Wuhan survive the Chinese coronavirus. Most of these are herbal soups using ingredients like licorice, mint, and other herbs. Some, the state publication claims, are thousands of years old.
As China has limited the flow of information out of Wuhan and the most affected coronavirus areas, the Communist Party’s claims of the effectiveness of these treatments cannot be corroborated by any independent researchers. China’s tally of “cured” patients also appears not to include patients discharged from their local hospitals who then relapsed, a number of them known to have died after being told they had overcome the coronavirus infection because their relatives anonymous reached out to international media.
In science-based medical communities, TCM is highly controversial. The World Health Organization (WHO) — which has disseminated information shared by Beijing and now known to be false about the Wuhan virus — endorsed TCM last year, leading to a flood of criticism from doctors and researchers who contended that the WHO should not support treatments that do not go through the necessary rigorous testing that keeps drugs and medical practices safe.
“We don’t give drugs and surgical treatments unless there is real evidence that they work and do no damage and basically the feeling is that most of the traditional Chinese medicine drugs are unregulated,” George Griffin, the president of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM), told the Guardian last year. “They are not tested properly for toxicity. They probably vary greatly between batches produced, for example seaweed, which is the latest, and they may be harmful. The other side of the equation is that they may be deluding patients into thinking they are taking appropriate therapies for serious disease.”
Dan Larhammar, president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, offered a similar analysis to PRI.
“If unproven methods are claimed to be useful then we are risking the health of the patients,” Larhammar argued. “Nobody has been able to define a meridian or acupuncture point. No one can say what diameter an acupuncture point has, or how deep it is in [the] skin, whether point same size over body. It’s still totally unknown — and most likely, [an] explanation for that is they probably don’t exist.”
The science publication Nature also criticized the fact that many ingredients used in TCM endanger animals already at risk of extinction.
“The Chinese appetite for TCM remedies has helped to push species including tigers, rhinoceroses, sea horses and pangolins to the brink of extinction,” Nature noted. “This situation is all the more troubling because there is little evidence that the preparations made from these animal products actually deliver the promised benefits.”
The Guardian described TCM practices now supported by the WHO as:
Traditional Chinese medicine includes herbal remedies, tai chi, skin cupping and acupuncture. Its practitioners are interested in the entirety of the mind and body and do not diagnose on the basis of isolated symptoms. They believe that vital energy, called qi, circulates through body channels, connected to organs and functions. While many of the therapies have been in use for hundreds of years, there is little evidence of benefit from scientific trials and some evidence of harm.
The introduction of TCM into an African continent wary of a regional coronavirus outbreak comes at a time in which many Africans do not trust their government to provide access to basics needed to keep the virus at bay, like soap and water. A survey by the pollster Afrobarometer published on Thursday found that “more than half of Africans say their governments are failing them when it comes to one of their top priorities — the provision of clean water and sanitation services.”
“Half of survey respondents say they went without enough clean water for home use during the previous year – a particular concern considering the importance of proper hygiene for preventing the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases,” Afrobarometer noted. “One in five Africans who tried to obtain utility services from government during the previous year report they had to pay a bribe. In 20 out of 34 countries, majorities say their government is doing a poor job of providing water and sanitation services.”