But Ogutu dismissed the idea that Chinese endeavors must have some ulterior motive. “We live in a conspiracy—that there’s some hidden agenda,” he said. In New South’s case, those fears seem misplaced: Unlike antibiotics and more specialized drugs, there is little money to be made from malaria treatment, with artemisinin-based malaria meds selling for just pennies per pill.
Rather, the company’s campaign to eradicate malaria forces us to reckon with the possibility that Chinese billionaires such as Zhu might be driven by the same altruistic intentions that drive their Western counterparts—philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who have spent more than $2 billion fighting malaria. If anything, New South’s secondary motivation isn’t only profit, but also pride. “We want to promote Chinese medicine to the globe,” Ethan Peng, who worked on New South’s MDA efforts in Nigeria, told me last month from his office in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.
Many in the West and in Africa are not enthused. Amid popular narratives about Chinese engagement in Africa is the assumption that Chinese-made products are faulty, cheap, subpar, or fake. Similar accusations have been directed at New South’s malaria-eradication campaign. A 2014 report by CBS News questioned the use of New South’s new drug, Artequick, even though it’s a combination of three drugs that are well studied, widely used to fight malaria globally, and deemed by researchers to be an effective treatment for malaria.
The real debate may have less to do with science than it does with ideology: Is malaria elimination—or for that matter, health care in general—a societal affair, or an individual one?
Several of my Chinese and Kenyan friends alike are astounded that some American parents refuse to vaccinate their children against measles out of a disproven fear of autism, and question why people even have that choice. The notion that individual liberties should be respected even when they refute science—to the point of creating a public-health emergency—seems ludicrous in societies where health is treated not as an individual right, but as a common good.
Moreover, such criticism ignores the reality that, in many parts of Africa, solving problems through science has already become a collaborative affair. In November, the Chinese Academy of Sciences opened its first-ever research center in Africa, near Nairobi. Chinese and Kenyan scientists work together to create drought-resistant crops, increase rice yields, and develop new methods for trapping water in the ground to better grow maize.
Chinese medicine has been a boon to Kenya: Pharmacies here carry Chinese-manufactured artemisinin alongside more globally recognized products from the Swiss pharma corporation Novartis, and since 2003 China has donated malaria and HIV drugs to Kenya’s government. Kiptui says she welcomes “any partner in malaria as long as they line up with our needs,” be they from “America or China or Thailand, or wherever.”
“In public health,” Kiptui says, “you do the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.”
“It takes some time for people to understand,” Peng told me. But “in Africa, more and more people are getting to recognize that Chinese medicine is very good.”
This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project from the Journalism Fund. Qian Sun, Anthony Langat, and Felix Franz contributed from China, Kenya, and Germany, respectively.
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