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Herbal medicine use and perspectives in the context of COVID-19 among the Congolese community in Belgium

Emiel De Meyer1, Patrick Van Damme2, Melissa Ceuterick3

1Ghent University, Dep. of Plants and Crops, Belgium
2Czech University of Life Sciences Prague, Fac. of Tropical AgriSciences, Czech Republic
3Ghent University, Department of Sociology


As a hard-hit area during the COVID-19 pandemic, Belgium knew the highest mortality among people from sub-Saharan African descent, compared to any other group living in the country. After migration, people often maintain traditional perceptions and habits regarding health and healthcare, resulting in a high prevalence of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine use among different migrant communities in northern urban settings. Despite being the largest community of sub-Saharan African descent in Belgium, little is known on ethnobotanical practices of the Belgian Congolese community. We therefore conducted an exploratory study on the use of medicinal plants in the context of COVID-19 and perceptions on this new disease among members of the Congolese community in Belgium. We conducted 16 in-depth semi-structured interviews with people of Congolese descent currently living in Belgium. Participants were selected using purposive sampling. Medicinal plant use in the context of COVID-19 was recorded through free-listing. Data on narratives, ideas and perceptions on the origin, cause/aaetiology and overall measures against COVID-19 (including vaccination) were collected. Interview transcripts were analysed using thematic analysis. Four overarching themes emerged from our data. Firstly, participants perceived the representation of the severity of COVID-19 by the Belgian media and government—and by extend by all governmental agencies in the global north—as exaggerated. As a result, traditional and complementary treatments were seen as feasible options to treat symptoms of the disease. Fifteen forms of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine were documented, of which thirteen were plants. Participants seem to fold back on their Congolese identity and traditional knowledge in seeking coping strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, institutional postcolonial distrust did not only seem to lead to distrust in official messages on the COVID-19 pandemic but also to feelings of vaccination hesitancy. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants in our study retreated to, reshaped and adapted traditional and culture-bound knowledge. This study suggests that the fragile and sensitive relationship between sub-Saharan African migrant groups and other social/ethnic groups in Belgium might play a role in their sensitivity to health-threatening situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: Belgium, Congolese community, COVID-19, urban ethnobotany

Contact Address: Emiel De Meyer, Ghent University, Dep. of Plants and Crops, Coupure Links 653, geb. A, 9000 Ghent, Belgium, e-mail: emiel.demeyer@ugent.be

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