The Voice of Africa

The Racialization of Diseases: COVID-19 and Africa

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Throughout this pandemic, I have been most privy to reactions from the Black community, particularly Black Twitter. At the beginning of the viral outbreak, the general sentiments of the community that I was exposed to were nothing short of melodramatic, outrageous, overall comedic. The Tweets that riddled the internet increasingly suggested that somehow Black people were immune to COVID-19. Even in a comedic tone, that train of thought, of a “Black immunity” to the virus, was quite troubling to me, especially since the most common justification was that Africa had zero-cases whereas places like Europe, Asia, and the US were struggling.

As an Africanist living in the diaspora, it is difficult for me to ignore the realities that are being engaged in these “jokes,” and how these realities are manipulated to fit these comedic narratives Beyond the humor, I believe the ramifications of this pandemic on the discourse surrounding race and ethnicity and disease are significant. This work is my effort to complicate the relationship between race, Africa, and disease through the framework of globalization and global white supremacy.

 

Black Immunity?

“You have to heal the wound before it ignores the medicine.” (African Proverb)

Aside from online platforms, I have also heard stories from friends conveying a general lack of concern regarding traveling because of the so-called Black immunity. Most of the stories were told in a tone of pride, as if we, as black people, had been graced with a gift. The so-called Black immunity was a blessing, perhaps, that we needed in order to walk in with our heads held high. White people had many things, but this… this was our time to shine. All the money, technology, and privilege could not save white people from this wretched virus, but boy-oh-boy had God come through for Black people—we could finally do away with the foolish Curse of Ham!

Chelsey Carter and Ezelle Sanford III, in their article on “Black immunity” and racialization of disease, also grapple with this phenomenon. They offer these thoughts:

Theories of Black immunity sound like the perfect reward for generations of racialized violence, amid a dystopian global nightmare… In an effort to find control in chaos, racialized claims like Black immunity ultimately represent a scrambling for power and a desire to make sense of uncertainty. We deploy these ideas which ultimately play into our own oppression and the oppression of others, however (Carter & Sanford, 2020).

As I am reflecting on these words, I can only think of how unfortunate is it that amid a fatal viral outbreak, with millions of deaths worldwide, that we are filled with pompous pride. How sad is it that this is seen as our long-awaited moment of promotion after centuries of being constantly and insistently beaten by the world?

Christine Heatherton, in her poem titled “Pedagogy”, offers a startling illustration of this phenomenon and calls to our attention the true damage that is done both to those standing in the position of false privilege, and those who are “othered” as a result. Heatherton’s poem allows for a realization of the breakdown of relational coalitions: that it manifests in areas that we are guilty of failing each other. I believe this is phenomenon is illustrative of that. Heatherton highlights the understated nature of white supremacy in which we all harbor stereotypes of each other, regardless of social identity,  as the result of conforming to the predominant white supremacist narrative. And it is not until we are in a space of relationality that we become aware of the biases that exist.

“The scramble of power” that Cater and Sanford refer to is simply an alternative to saying that we strive to assume racialized hegemonic structures at any chance that it favors us. Because we have been put down for so long, we take on the attitude of “as long as I am not on the bottom.” In this case, the pride in this so-called Black immunity seemingly elevates us so that we are not the object of everybody’s scorn and disdain. Well, then who is? Because frankly with this school of thought, there is always going to be an “other.” We are immune, but they aren’t.

But, the notion of Black immunity quickly fizzled out as gradually African deaths joined the global toll. Now, we see that in our own backyard that Black people are among the highest affected populations of COVID-19. Existing data show that the mortality rate for Blacks in America from COVID-19 is more than twice as high as any other racial/ethnic group (APM Research Lab). It is the highest mortality rate in the nation and it is fast rising. In some ways, I am tempted to ask if there were any effects from the “immunity” boasts, regarding perception, detection of early signs, seeking out treatment, etc., on these statistics. This is, of course, not to erase the obvious systematic disparities that exist within our healthcare system that not only place Black bodies at a disadvantaged position but often result in fatalities, because COVID-19 is no exception. But, what I am trying to understand is, were there moments of inactivity or moments of hesitation in response to illnesses in the Black community related to the idea of “Black immunity.”

In Psychology, there is a term, belief change, that aligns with my inquiries. Belief change refers to the phenomenon in which an individual is more likely to convert their beliefs when the change offers a chance at security or a feeling of being okay (Smith, 2016). In times of uncertainty, anxiety, or confusion—basically this pandemic—belief change is magnified. So, in that same light, there is a great sense of security that “Black immunity” offers in the context of this pandemic because it negates any possibility of viral contraction. How likely is it then that an individual at risk or one who has contracted the virus defaults to the reasoning of immunity resulting in a stall in seeking out treatment. Even though thoughts of Black immunity to COVID-19 were short-lived, I believe that the extent of its influence was fairly impactful on society at large.

 

Africa, Disease & Western Medicine

My sister recently told me about her encounter with a market woman in Ghana who was calling COVID-19 “coronial disease.” Because I know that for most Ghanaians the “R” and “L” sounds are interchangeable, I can’t help but wonder if this was not a simple linguistic slip. What if somewhere in her mind the idea that disease is transmitted through the white body is enmeshed with her knowledge of Africa’s racist colonial history, transforming Coronavirus into coronial—or colonial—disease.

Throughout many areas of Africa, there is a belief that Western medicine is the vector of disease spread. This distrust of western medicine in Africa is particularly obvious in Muslim communities but throughout the continent, western medicine is generally less preferable (Bennett, 2017). Studies on polio eradication efforts in northern Nigeria show that the prevalence of polio in the area is largely due to the lack of participation from the affected communities due to distrust of western medicine.

In 2003, five northern Nigerian states staged a year-long boycott against the oral polio vaccine (OPV) that shook the international community. The reason for their vaccine refusal was because of rumors that associated OPV with cancer, HIV, and sterility. Specifically, it was believed that “OPV was an American conspiracy to spread HIV and cause infertility in Muslim girls.” (Ghinai et al, 2013; Raufu, 2002). What many in the international community did not realize is that those beliefs were not ill-founded; there was a deep and painful history to them.

In 1996, the American company Pfizer conducted clinical trials for an oral antibiotic, Trovan, in Kano, a northern Nigerian state, in which several children died (Ghinai et al., 2013; Smith 2011). Community members claimed that the company had no license, ethical approval, or informed consent for those trials, but Pfizer disputed those claims. After a lengthy legal battle, Pfizer settled with the Kano government and some families of the deceased children in 2009 (Smith 2011). Tracing the history even further, incidents like the Pfizer controversy are starkly reminiscent of the medical experimentation that occurred during the period of colonialism in Africa.

Africa was—and frankly continues to be—viewed as an unlimited field for clinical research with unlimited clinical material (Smith, 1955; Tilley, 2016). The power inequalities that existed within colonial Africa centered on the dispensability of Black bodies. It posed an opportunity for widespread medical experimentation on Africans with little regard of ethics—especially since colonial rule occurred during the predominance of germ theories of disease (Tilley, 2016). Additionally, there is a plethora of evidence indicating that health interventions constituted the majority of colonial funding (Tilley, 2016; Lowes and Montero, 2018; (Headrick, 1994; Lachenal, 2014).

In a study on colonial medicine in Central Africa, a correlation was found between contemporary mistrust in the medical sector and the history of colonial medical campaign exposure (Lowes & Montero, 2018). Between 1921 and 1956, the French colonial administration organized a series of medical campaigns in Central Africa aimed at managing tropical diseases (Lowes & Montero, 2018). The subjects, all of which were Africans, were forcibly examined and injected with trial medications that had severe side effects including blindness, gangrene, and death. Also, there is speculation that these campaigns contributed to the spread of contagious diseases in the area because needles were often re-used during the campaigns (Lowes & Montero, 2018; Pépin, 2011; Lachenal, 2014). The aforementioned histories are a smidge of the total history of western medical practices in Africa, but they all reinforce the notion of African distrust in western medicine and the white body as a vector of diseases that causes the affliction of black bodies.

A recent viral debate between two French doctors, Camille Locht from INSERM (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) and Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive medicine and the intensive care unit at Paris’ Cochin hospital, brought those histories to the forefront and forced us to confront their legacies—many of which people of the continent are still dealing with today. While discussing possible COVID-19 interventions, the two doctors made remarks about testing a new vaccine in Africa. Even though efforts have been made by both doctors to dissuade the public from taking the remarks as racist, by adding context to the debate, there is no excusing the tone of the remarks—especially considering the recency of so many other unethical medical practices from colonial and neo-colonial powers.

In the debate, Mira suggested that the study be conducted in Africa because “there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care,” and Locht’s responded in kind “You’re right,” and that there were already plans to so (Euronews). The ease at which the use of Africa as a testing lab was suggested and then justified by a perceived general lack—or backwardness if we are being honest about perceptions of Africa—is outright racist. Especially since Africa, at that point, had, and still has, the least cases and deaths of COVID-19 worldwide. Additionally, the experience African nations have in dealing with disease outbreaks has greatly helped them in dealing with COVID-19 in ways that the West can only marvel at: A Senegalese laboratory recently developed $1 testing kits based on an existing kit to test for dengue fever enabling nation-wide testing and it has been noted that West African nations’ experiences with the Ebola epidemic have strengthened their health security capacity for infectious diseases like COVID-19 ((AlJazeera; Nsofor, 2020).

 

‘Chinese’ virus – China Africa relations

As COVID-19 spread to the West many, including the President of the United States, indulged in racist remarks and actions against the Asian community. In early March, CNN posted a report that an East Asia student had been assaulted in a racist COVID-19 related attack. The victim, Jonathan Wok, wrote on his Facebook page, “the guy who tried to kick me then said, ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country’.” These xenophobic attacks are backed by a racialization of COVID-19 that propagates the notion that Asians are not just carriers but also the cause of the virus—as if without this specific race of people the virus would not exist. And no matter how much we would like to believe that only ignorant people would think like this, the internet trolling, circulation of ill-used research material, and subtle remarks whispered amongst ourselves say otherwise. Someone once said to me, “it’s better the Chinese than us (meaning Africans), they have teased us long enough. It is finally the Chinese people’s turn, they’ve never liked us anyway.” The xenophobia towards Asians during this pandemic is not contained to the West, Africans—as with the case of Black Immunity—are also experiencing this “Chinese virus” as a break from the othering they typically experience in terms of disease.

China and Africa have a very complicated relationship historically, economically, and in terms of migration. During colonial rule, many Chinese were brought to the continent as workers in industries such as mining. In parts of the continent, East and Southern Africa especially, Chinese presence is very tangible in contemporary society and culture. Post-independence, China has become one of the main investors of African development, often rivaling the United States as the dominant neo-colonial power. But, the relationship that I would like to focus on is the one concerning the migration. Between the two entities, there has been a long-standing pattern of bilateral migration.

It is estimated that over the past 20 years over a million Chinese have emigrated to Africa. And in Guangzhou, a southern city of China, popularly known as the hub of Africans in China, a 2014 report estimated 16,000 Africans legally resided in the city (French, 2014; Castillo, 2020). With numbers like these, it is not far-fetched for me to assume that, similar to the West, xenophobia against Chinese, or broadly, people of Asian descent would be occurring in Africa. After all, most African countries are experiencing very low numbers of COVID-19 infection, some none at all, so any perceived “threat” of the virus, including the presence of Chinese people, would likely lead to xenophobic actions. This is compounded by the fact that already in African nations the Chinese are stereotyped as greedy and thieving people who take away resources from the natives. In the case of Ghana, the stereotypes are attributed to the history of illegal mining of a few Chinese migrants in gold-rich areas of the nation so many push for their departure from the area (Hammond, 2019).

Recently, there was a video circulating WhatsApp of a crowd gathered around a Trotro (local bus) as many were quickly rushing out of it. This was very strange because in most cases people are rushing into the vehicle to practically sit on top of each other. As the videographer gets closer to the Trotro you see a lone Asian man sitting inside simply looking ahead towards the street seemingly attempting to ignore the ruckus around him. That video was not circulated to point out how prejudice and offensive those people were, it was comedic content. But what really struck me was quickly the narrative shifted from a comedic one to one about forcibly removing the crocked disease causers from the environment before Africa ends up like the rest of the world. Shockingly, there have also been instances of COVID-19 related xenophobic actions in China directed towards African residents. I am unsure as to whether these actions could be labeled as retaliatory or not due to the lack of information from the Chinese on the matter.

In Guangzhou—where most Africans reside in China—officials confirmed that five Nigerians had tested positive for COVID-19 resulting in Chinese owned restaurants and apartments posting signs that read, “No Blacks.” There were also local media reports of a Nigerian COVID-19 patient who allegedly assaulted a Guangzhou nurse while in hospital quarantine which further agitated Chinese sentiments towards Africans. Many longtime Africa residents in Guangzhou were suddenly evicted from their homes and forced to roam the streets only to find shelter under highway overpasses. Videos have surfaced of Chinese police shouting at young African men, lining them up and pressing them into walls, and reports have been made that most of the victims of these xenophobic actions are facing issues of hunger and violence. The public sentiment towards Africans in Guangzhou has always been negative, Chinese residents use words like “sanfei,” a derogatory term translating to “three illegals,” illegal entry, residence, and work, to characterize Africans but in light of these COVID-19 related incidents, many are now calling for the Africans to be deported.

The reality of China-Africa relations is incredibly complex, but in no way should the complexity allow for glazing over of the injustices that are occurring in these spaces. I have read too many articles that frame the xenophobia occurring in these spaces in international relations, globalization, and economic terms, often defaulting to the neo-colonial power dynamic between the two entities. There is immense harm in not looking at these instances for what they are: these are reactions of fear of COVID-19, a racialized fear of the virus. In the broader scope of it all, both Chinese and Africans have experienced these same stereotypes they attribute to one another in the West, for example, yet are quick to co-opt into the villainization of the each other in their respective spaces. Again, in reflecting on this, I recall Christine Heatherton’s “Pedagogy,” but also Kimberlé Crenshaw’s basement analogy from her piece “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” of the ways in which we partake in the very same systems that oppress us simply because we vainly strive towards supremacy and not solidarity. I appreciate the way this tweet brings it all into perspective: “Breaking solidarity is a white supremacist tactic. It is not an accident that two communities that have both faces genocidal intent from white supremacists are pushed into conflict with each other instead of recognizing the common threat. Resist that trap” (@JustSayXtian). Even though the tweet was not about China-Africa relations, it still works sadly because every minority group has been subject to the genocidal intent of white supremacy yet there is very little sense of solidarity beyond the group itself.

 

The American Nightmare – Africans abroad revisit their trauma

The issue of the West’s perception of Africa is rather ironic in this pandemic. I center most of my research around the image of Africa—what are the predominant perceptions held in the world about Africa, most of them negative, and how did they come to be. Curtis Keim in his book “Mistaking Africa” analyzes the Western tendency of making Africa synonymous with notions of poverty, warfare, and disease. After all, there is always at least one commercial of a skinny sick child and their weak, helpless mother who need you to donate $1 to save their lives—sometimes because of war, sometimes because that’s just how it is in Africa. But, in this pandemic the general perception of Africa is far from problematic, instead, the West has been called into scrutiny.

In light of this pandemic, many Africans living in the West have become reminiscent of their trauma from experiences back home. They attest to experiencing the same “third-world problems” they fled from in this “land of opportunity and riches.” My parents have been sharing stories from the African Market of Sierra Leoneans and Liberians who are panicked because of the parallels between US panic shopping, hoarding of resources, delayed/vague governmental response, isolation of people, curfews, etc. and the beginnings of civil war in their home countries. Many of them fled those wars and ended up in the United States to ultimately experience some security. How cruel is it, that now they have come to find out that their sense of security in this country is nothing but an illusion. The United States’ response to this pandemic has been nothing short of embarrassing and the ramifications of it for many are a matter of life and death, especially for Black people.

My mom tells this story of an Africa man who came into the store during the early stages of US exposure to COVID-19. The man spoke of how he has been running away from problem after problem, situation after situation—most likely referring to national insecurity in his home country—all over the African continent until he finally decided the US was the place for him. At the end of his story, the man says that upon arriving at JFK he basked in the realization that his marathon had finally ended… only for the US to be hit with this virus. He ends his story with this: “but then I looked around, from where I was, to where I am, to where I can go, and I realized that this thing is not something I can run from, because auntie, it’s everywhere oh!” My mom tells this as a funny story, very much in the spirit of Black people laughing in the face of misfortune,  but, in its essence, this is s a story of lost hope. The man has given up on finding his peace and security.

The reality of this world is that race and ethnicity, if you are not white, are automatic markers of disadvantage and that can leave you where this man is, defeated and without hope. But, there are so many advocates, fighters, warriors who choose to see beyond the veil of white supremacy. Scholarship from the likes of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Christine Heatherton, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, and many others, have inspired me to hold on to this vision; the one in which the abnormal becomes the normal. Considering this pandemic, Africanists like myself can begin to flesh out the tensions that exist between western hegemony—which frame as global white supremacy—and the distortion that exists in how Africans are perceived and perceive others in this world of globalization in an effort to uncover the ways we can go about correcting them for coming generations.

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1 Comment
  1. kindervan says

    great article

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