This Ramadan is perhaps the most extraordinary Ramadan we will ever experience in our lives. We are in the grip of a global pandemic, COVID-19 has grabbed the world’s attention and all human beings are its hostage. Somehow, a feeling of uncertainty binds us all, with a desire for relief and the need for compassion, writes Sa’dullah Khan:

Colossal Effect of Virus

For the first time in human history, over two billion people worldwide; almost half the world’s population, is in lockdown. All this, due to a pandemic triggered by microscopic virus that has caused titanic devastation. It has collapsed oil prices, crashed stock markets, caused economic meltdown; has closed trade, travel, sports, schools, places of worship in virtually every country on earth. It has infected over 2.8 million people in 210 countries/territories and resulted in over 197,000 deaths (at time of writing). If ever the world felt on the same page, this is the time. If ever there was a need for compassion, it is now.

Living the Empathy

Ramadan is a month of heightened consciousness, a month of fasting, of increased worship, spiritual reflection, of philanthropy and compassion. Ramadan encourages the promotion of the spirit of ubuntu, of humanity to others. It is about consciously caring and sharing, about being compassionate; about deepening our understanding of our world while simultaneously empathizing with the challenges faced by the world around us. The current pandemic is forcing us to acknowledge that we are a world of common problems and solutions, we are all in this together, one humanity; what harms one harms the other. 

The pandemic has raised our consciousness beyond the level of sympathy (where we acknowledge the suffering of others) to that of empathy (where we feel the suffering of others as our own). With the current state of affairs, many are living embodiments of empathy. In this ailing world, at this monumental period in our history, we need a lasting sense of compassion.

It is not Compassion

Compassion engenders a sense of responsibility. It is not compassionate to circulate unverified information about the Coronavirus or the pandemic.  It is not compassion to ignore the calls for social distancing and to defy logic by insisting on the desire to congregate. It is unfortunate that the only thing currently more viral than the virus is fake news about the pandemic; and the one thing more diabolical than the disease is the irresponsibility of leaders who tell people to ignore the threat of this infection.  

Compassion is definitely not reflected in the prejudicial way some inconsiderate people view the impoverished with contempt; saying that “the ghettos will be the cause of our destruction”. They do so without reflecting on the fact that most of the underprivileged are forced to live in cramped conditions without having the luxury of space for social distancing, without running water for sanitizing, without electricity for comforts and who are forced to share communal commodes.

Reflections of Compassion

Compassion is reflected in our concern for hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children, who may not have enough food to eat at home in the coming weeks and months? Those learners who can not go to school, where many of them get their only daily meal; whose parents may not have sufficient means to survive the lockdown. 

Compassion is demonstrated in our volunteering to assist in combating this pandemic, in alleviating the suffering of those in distress, in keeping an eye on the well-being of our household and our neighbours; remaining telephonically in touch with the elderly, the sick, the orphans and the abused.

Compassion is manifested when we actively engage in feeding the poverty-stricken, providing basic necessities; supporting institutions which volunteer to provide essential services to assist the most vulnerable. We exhibit our compassion through appreciation of those heroic doctors, nurses and health workers who treat the infected at the risk of their own lives; those drivers who deliver food, medicine and necessary supplies; and those religious leaders who bury the dead; all at their own peril.

Agents of Compassion

As we pray and fast during this unprecedented Ramadan, beseeching Allah for His forgiveness and mercy; let us ensure we come out of this trial better than we were before; better human beings, more aware, more considerate, more caring, more loving and more compassionate. When we are compassionate, positive energy pours from our souls into the world; positive energy emanates from the primordial breath of the Divine, channelling the mercy of the Most Merciful through us, causing healing and restoring balance. Besides our faith; compassion, human empathy and social solidarity are keys to surviving the catastrophic consequences of this global pandemic.

May the Most Compassionate make us agents of His compassion in these trying times, throughout this sacred month of Ramadan … and beyond.

The search for a COVID-19 vaccine has sparked international media controversy and negative sentiment around the potential harm of people taking part in clinical trials once the research enters its human testing phase.

A wave of anger was ignited when two top French doctors said on live TV that coronavirus vaccines should be tested on poor Africans. The doctors later apologised for suggesting that COVID-19 vaccine trials should be carried out on a continent where the people were largely impoverished, with limited resources, and unable to protect themselves.

The statements made by Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira fed into a world already fissured by deep-rooted racial and economic discrimination.

Stigmatisation and discrimination in previously colonised African countries swung into focus, resulting in research becoming the target of populist rhetoric. Didier Drogba, a retired footballer, raised the issue that African people should not be used as guinea pigs in a testing lab. Samuel Eto’o, another retired footballer, called the doctors “murderers”.

The comments also resulted in the launch of a social media initiative in the form of a petition to stop coronavirus trials in Africa. The reasoning was that “Africa and developing countries have been testing grounds of large pharmaceutical companies” using the poor as the “guinea pigs of the wealthy”.

Not unlike fake news, the resultant outcome of the doctor’s racist comments was worldwide misinformation. Modern day research and clinical trials are highly regulated. In a COVID-19 world, scientific activity to develop a vaccine for global use is under careful scrutiny. Short of finding a cure, a vaccine is the only viable means to manage the devastating future outcome of the disease. A vaccine will need to be tested, and the world is watching. The doctors’ racism, however, unequivocally reminded the African continent of past medical discrimination at the hands of European countries. The result was a gratuitous attack on scientific research.

Finding a vaccine for COVID-19 is a worldwide medical emergency, necessary to prevent the death of millions of people. Should Africa participate in a global clinical trial? Absolutely. To refuse inclusion would prevent Africa’s researchers from being significant players in the universal fight against the virus.

Read more: Few clinical trials are done in Africa: COVID-19 shows why this urgently needs to change

The history

The extreme reaction from Africa was not entirely without merit. There are countries on the continent where vaccines and medical research are viewed with suspicion, and where both have been linked to activities, in the name of medicine, which were carried out in a grossly unethical manner.

During a meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, pharmaceutical company Pfizer tested Trovan, an experimental antibiotic drug, on 200 children without proper consent. In Malawi, during an AZT trial, in spite of there being alternative treatment available, a placebo was given to pregnant women enrolled on the trial. There is an ethical standard in research where a placebo, a substance which is of no therapeutic benefit, may not be given when investigating the efficacy of a new drug or drug regimen in cases where there is appropriate treatment available.

The legacy of this is that some people are afraid of being infected with diseases by vaccination.

That medical research and medicine were involved in historical abuse cannot be argued, but clinical trials in the 21st century look very different.

A changed environment

Globalisation in the past decade has shifted the trend in research activity from being done in developed countries to include trials in low- and middle-income countries.

Fears that countries may not have the institutional capacity to carry out research to the same ethical standards as their western counterparts have disappeared. Instead global health research partnerships have sprung up across continents. This has led to increased collaboration between European and African research organisations.

Research which takes place in Africa is predominantly funded by northern sponsors, with national academics and clinicians partnering in the research process. This has had a balancing effect – sponsored projects assist African research institutions to acquire funding for their own projects, to facilitate publishing of results, and to upscale research knowledge.

Read more: Coronavirus: never been a more compelling time for African scientists to work together

The ethical frameworks of these trials are stringent. International research organisations provide oversight to ensure that participants are protected.

Research carries risk, which is why there are international codes which protect participants. Each country has national legislation and standards to ensure that research is carried out ethically. This means that:

  • No person can be enrolled in a clinical trial without first giving their informed consent. To give informed consent, the potential participant must have the entire process of the project explained to them. This includes all of the possible risks and harms, as well as the expected outcomes. This must be done in a language and at a level that the participant is able to understand.
  • Participants may not be enrolled without being given the opportunity to leave the project at any time.
  • A participant’s personal information must be confidential, and the researcher may not use the participant’s information if the person has withdrawn.
  • There are agencies where the participant can lay a formal complaint.
  • All participants must be followed up after involvement in a research project, and there must be a plan in place to assist any participant who requires additional care arising from the trial.

Read more: Scientists must share research findings with participants. Here’s why

COVID-19 trials

COVID-19 medication trials are taking place around the world. In Asia 1000 participants have already been recruited in to test Remdesivir, a drug developed by an American pharmaceutical company, Gilead. In the US the first trials of a vaccine are being run on 45 healthy participants.

Legitimate medical research activities are important to ensure that pandemics like the COVID-19 tragedy can be managed. Should Africa not be involved in the fight, it will be an indictment against medical research’s basic foundation – to allow people to choose to be part of the solution or to refuse on informed and valid grounds. The alternative is to sit idly by, as part of the global furniture waiting to be saved.