We speak to a Turkish doctor who's done extensive aid work in Africa and he tells us how Covid-19 once again puts African bodies at risk of ethically wrong medical experiments conducted by the West.
Last week when two French doctors said on live television that they intend to test a potential coronavirus vaccine in Africa, the remark drew widespread criticism from the head of the World Health Organisation through to several African social and political figures, world class footballers and celebrities.
“Africa cannot and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine,” the WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, condemning what he called a “racist” suggestion.
Despite the outrage, the Democratic Republic of Congo stepped forward to be part of any future vaccine against Covid-19.
"The vaccine will be produced in the United States, or in Canada, or in China. We're candidates for doing the testing here," said the head of Congo's national biological institute, Jean-Jacques Muyembe.
So Africa continues to be a testing lab for the world regardless of what the WHO says about this long-standing practice or how critically many African countries view it.
To get a sense of how such experiments have harmed the collective psyche of people living on the continent, TRT World spoke to a 50-year-old Turkish doctor Serhat Onur, who has volunteered for medical aid and performed surgeries in Africa since 2008.
Of the 25 times Onur has been to Africa, he has made 17 trips to Niger, three visits to Uganda, two to Ethiopia and Chad, and one to Mali. Echoing the WHO's director Ghebreyesus's view — that the West should rid itself of the colonial mentality — Onur said the imprints of colonialism are still very much alive in the continent, in every aspect of life, including the health sector, right from the hospital infrastructure to complex bureaucracy.
TRT WORLD: Can you tell us about your experience working in Africa and the health situation of Africans?
SERHAT ONUR: In Africa, one out of five children die from malaria before reaching the age of five. Why is malaria not a problem for the rest of the world but still in Africa almost 500,000 people die from malaria every year? Nobody is questioning this but we are all overwhelmed by the number of deaths the coronavirus caused. Death toll from Covid-19 in the past three months is equal to Africa’s two weeks of loss from malaria.
There is no single African country that produces medicine for malaria. The medicines are expensive and all are coming from the West. Nobody is in search of a vaccine to treat malaria because none of the Western countries are suffering from malaria. And if a cure were to be found to treat malaria, then who are they going to sell all these malaria medicines? So if you approach problems with this mindset, we will never be able to find solutions to sufferings of African people.
Why do people not question this? Because they are hungry and because a hungry person is not able to challenge the status quo. For instance in Niger, one of the poorest countries of the world, we volunteer for a region where there are only two old hospitals built by French in the 1950s catering for a million people.
A patient with a 30-year hernia problem walks in for surgery, when you ask him how he had been living in this condition for this long? He says he got used to it because these hospitals have only two to three doctors to treat over a million patients and only one or two have the licence to conduct surgery or hospitals lack the equipment for operations. While these hospitals accommodate one or two surgeries per month, we complete 30-40 surgeries a day when we go there to deliver medical aid. We carry all our surgical equipment, medicines required and medical devices which usually weigh two to three tons.
Each trip takes 15 days; four to five days spent on the journey, 10 days solely for medical aid. We have a team that conducts 700-800 cataract surgeries in 10 days. My team removes bladder stones, and does surgical repair of uterine prolapse and hernia, testicle repair surgeries and reproductive surgeries for women counting to 300-400 surgeries in 10 days.
Have you come across this ‘colonialism mentality’ during your trips?
SO: In the beginning they were very sceptical towards us. Children were all the time escaping from us. Sometimes we want to play with them or show a little love, they would run to their parents screaming. We were surprised as to why they were keeping distance. Then we were told they’ve been teaching their kids to stay away from white men as they used to come to collect kids from streets to be sold in ‘slave markets’.
They also said during colonial times they started the tradition of marking their faces with scar burns to make them less attractive to be taken away that slave traders would withdraw from them.
Did you experience any trust issues in the field too, while delivering medical aid?
SO: When we arrived in Bamako, Mali’s capital city we were met by a local anesthesiologist at the hospital. From the first day, this anesthesiologist started to intrude into all the surgeries we were conducting. All the surgeons accompanying me have at least 15 years of experience and for years we have been using our annual leave to volunteer in Africa. We were trying to make the most of these trips, working from 08:00 to 21:00 to conduct as much surgery as we can for people who walked hundreds of miles in the hope of receiving treatment, but the local anesthesiologist was complicating things; enquiring whether we have the laboratory evaluation of the patient’s kidney functions or liver test results etcetera. He was requesting examinations that we require in Turkey for major operations and given the situation in African hospitals, it was impossible for us to come up with these prior to surgeries. Luckily, we had equipment to show him the blood values of the patients to seek his approval.
After four or five days, he stopped requiring tests from us and it was surprising to see him walking in more patients for surgeries. We asked him what has happened to change his attitude? Then he said “I thought you are from them”, he further explained that there are Western people coming with students from medical faculties and interns to conduct surgeries on their people to gain experience. He said, he had to make sure that he safeguards the best interest of his people and apologised for his initial behaviour of making things extra difficult for us. That was one of my experiences in the field and what I was told from a local practicing doctor.
And today we witnessed a Saudi actor suggesting the use of detainees as lab rats. Is this acceptable in the medical research or healthcare industry?
SO: There is an approved practice of becoming an experimental subject willingly. Normally, you pay the subjects and you can do an experiment based on their consent. However, what we see in Africa right now is that -putting aside the human beings- Western scientists have almost brought monkeys to extinction as they experiment their research to find a cure for Ebola. They are not only exploiting African nations but also animals and destroying natural flora.
[NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories.]