By DR KENNETH D KEMP
HAVE you ever noticed that members of the Rastafarian community have largely remained relatively unscathed by the COVID- 19 pandemic? I pondered for quite a while as to why I hadn’t heard of a single Rasta who died from the virus. Was the media just ignoring this community? Were their cases being under-reported by Rastafarians because of a lack of testing within their population or are they doing something, purposefully or as part of their normal routines, that prevents them from either getting sick, spreading the virus or both?
Rastafarians don’t take any (non-herbal) medications so as a community it’s not surprising they expressed early on that they would not get vaccinated so we know vaccines do not explain why the Rasta population did not appear to experience the impact of the pandemic like others did. But the same can be said of other unique communities like the Amish, who are relatively reclusive and primarily live in isolated community clusters. Members of their community were indeed infected by COVID-19 but as in the Rastafarian community, very few, if any were hospitalised and died from it.
I’m a huge proponent of getting vaccinated but while vaccines lessen the risk of hospitalisation and death, they alone cannot safeguard us from getting infected. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to consider what other parameters (outside of wearing masks and using hand sanitisers frequently throughout the day) can be employed to curtail exposure and infection from this seemingly endless cycle of new variants.
I’m led to believe the overwhelmingly organic and plant-based diet of many individuals within such communities may be a significant factor in their limited COVID hospitalisation and death rates. This then also opens the door to study individuals residing in the Amazon community to see if there is a correlation between their lifestyle (specifically activity level), dietary habits and COVID infection.
Earlier this week, I had an enlightening interview with Priest Marcus, a Rastafarian and the chairman of the House of Rastafari. He states that members of his community partake in a primarily vegan (called Ital) diet. They consume high quantities of fruits and vegetables and use coconut oil or coconut milk to mix with herbs to create their own spice. They use a limited amount, if any, of salt and sugar. This alone can account for the fact that no member of their community is overweight or obese, a remarkable fact in our culture and something that deserves far greater attention than it currently receives.
In addition, their activity level is high when compared with the general population because many of them work on farms or in construction and prefer to walk or bike during the day as opposed to driving. Priest Marcus’ take home message is that the world’s natural resources, namely herbs can heal the nation – a notion they’ve been espousing for years but one that has only now begun to influence more mainstream sentimentalities. I have been told that the owners and farmers of Abaco Neem share similar views, that is, nature provides the best preventative medicine of all if you understand it and benefit from it correctly.
A study conducted in part with scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University was just published by the Journal of Natural Products. In it they stated that some marijuana compounds, namely CBGA (cannabigerolic acid) and CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and thereby block it from entering human cells and causing an infection. Despite this revelation, the high rate of marijuana use within the Rastafarian community can’t take sole credit for their low infection and mortality rates because cannabinoid acids are heat sensitive so smoking them would render them ineffective. That then reinforces the notion that diet may be the ultimate causative factor for their higher-than-average immunity when compared with the general population.
So, how then can we extrapolate this information and implement it effectively into our own lives? One such method is to change our eating habits. Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables loaded with a vast array of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre daily would help boost our immune system and prevent illness.
The government of The Bahamas, namely the Ministry of Health and Wellness in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture has openly discussed focusing more on preventing illness through the foods we eat rather than simply treating the multiple diseases either initiated or exacerbated by a lifetime of poor dietary choices. This is a far less costly and more rewarding initiative. Hopefully those efforts will prove to be efficacious in the short rather than long term.
I love meat, steak in particular, so going vegan is certainly not in the cards for me. But to counter that while maintaining the pleasure of animal protein, I exercise vigorously six days per week, drink lots of water, take vitamins daily and always consume a full serving of fruits and vegetables. While it would be presumptuous of me to say the formula should work for everyone and every Bahamian should do what I do - balance the love of good food with the love of activity - all I can say is it works for me. And one lesson I hope we have all learned from this pandemic is that our immune systems are our first line of defence so whatever it takes, less fatty foods, more vegetables, heart healthy behaviour, we now know we cannot wait and promise we will start living like that later. Today, every minute of a healthy immune system counts.
That takes us full circle back to where we began with trying to understand why the Rastafarian community has fared so well in a pandemic that took so many others down a different path. There are approximately one million Rastafarians throughout the world, but their highest population resides in Jamaica.
While I lived in the US, I once rode the subway while sitting next to a Rasta, and an elderly Caucasian lady entered. We both gestured to give her our seat and she accepted the Rastafarian’s offer. As she sat next to me, she patted me on the leg and smiled. Then she looked up at him and said ‘Everything Irie’. I thought to myself what a sweet lady, but I looked at him and I could tell he was offended. He smiled but his eyes reflected something other than happiness. The energy changed and every other passenger nearby, other than him and myself, were oblivious to it. Later that night I asked my father about it and he stated that Irie is a Jamaican slang and not every Rasta is from Jamaica. Perhaps in that moment he also realised the lady accepted his seat because she preferred to sit next to me. It was a subtle prejudice that I was too ignorant in the moment to realise and one that deserves to be elucidated.
There is still a significant level of stigma against small sects like the Rastafarians and Amish communities, but it is incumbent for us all, as my Christian faith has taught me, to treat their adherents with the same respect we would give to anyone of our own faith. This is all the more significant now that a world-wide pandemic is glaringly teaching us such communities may have a lot more to teach us than previously surmised. And because of the general humility of most Rastafarians, they have been too kind to call their own success to our attention. All the more reason to show our respect.
• Nicknamed ‘The Prince of Podiatry’, Dr Kenneth D Kemp is the founder and medical director of Bahamas Foot and Ankle located in Caves Village, Western New Providence. He served as the deputy chairman for the Health Council for five years and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation in his role as co-vice-chairman.