Recent travel bans against South Africa are evidence that the West still attaches archaic stereotypes of incompetence and feeble-mindedness against Black people and Africans.
During the Covid-19 pandemic mainstream media outlets resorted to sensationalism, using racist language while reporting on the health situation the world over. This was demonstrated by the racist cartoon published by the Spanish newspaper La Tribuna, which depicted Black South Africans as the Omicron Covid variant. Their bodies were drawn in the shape of the virus, and they were shown on a boat labelled Omicron, flying the South African flag. This cartoon depicted Black people and Africans as both vectors and inherent harbourers of disease.
We have seen racist and reactionary government interventions from predominantly white Western countries like the UK in response to the discovery of the Omicron variant. They introduced rushed spontaneous travel restrictions with red lists almost exclusively made up of African countries, so much so that it had been labelled a ‘Black list’.
The US and Canada were among other Western countries to have a Black red list. However, if one looks at Nigeria, an African country on the list, it had recorded just three cases at the beginning of December.
By contrast, countries like the Netherlands and Portugal both had 19 cases recorded but had not featured on these red lists. How peculiar, one wonders.
In addition, there has been an obsession since the pandemic began of how and why the epicentres of the virus have been Europe and North America and not continents like Africa. There has been constant probing into the validity of death rates produced by African countries, which has prompted heated discussions, debates and headlines about why death rates across the continent are so low. This suggests that there was an expectation for the continent to be ravaged by the virus, feeding into the narrative that Black people, particularly Africans, are harbourers of disease.
Many of us living in the diaspora and on the continent can identify the forced associations with Black Africans and Covid-19, in a move to facilitate and establish the Africanisation of Covid. It must be stated that these harmful and damaging stereotypes are rooted in eugenics.
A term coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, eugenics was the pseudoscientific discipline of racism, classism and ableism.
The pseudoscience drew upon different disciplines to advocate for the breeding of desirable characteristics in humans; white, able-bodied and upper class. And the phasing out of undesirable humans; Black, disabled and lower class. This was to be done by influencing the media, government, medicine and public health - and they were successful.
During the pandemic, the disciplines of genetics and public health have been crucial in paving the way forward. However, a missing historical link in that duo is the fact that eugenics and the foundations of modern genetics and public health are inextricably linked to this racist project.
The establishment of the American and British eugenics societies had a wide and notable membership from individuals such as John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th Century, and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
It also had academics and doctors such as Dr Robert Reid Rentoul, a prominent member of the Royal College of Surgeons, the General Medical Council of Education and the Medico-Legal Society who, despite his position, wrote books about how Black people were spreaders of disease due to their degeneracy, criminality and idiocy and therefore must be sterilised and barred from immigrating to the UK and gaining British citizenship.
The exclusive Blacklisting of African countries in the name of public health and protection we recently saw is reminiscent of this rhetoric and also of general immigration policy, sentiment and language used about migrants and refugees.
Eugenicists from all over the world shared ideas. They then spread those ideas and embedded them in policy, medicine and science that Black people were in danger of dirtying the white gene pool because they contained the aforementioned negative traits, therefore the white Western world must protect itself from this terrible threat.
The dirtying of the gene pool rhetoric incites the unfounded belief that the supposed deadliest Covid-19 variant to emerge came from South Africa or Botswana. This enforced the idea that the Black African physiology is the site of the intensification of disease and illness. In reality, it was because South Africa has developed some of the best viral sequencing technology in the world following the advent of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Scientists from the country established that it was much more likely the virus has originated elsewhere in the world but had been detected first by South Africa.
The above ideas have a historical context. The Tuskugee Syphilis experiment is one of the worst examples of medical experimentation, and was carried out 1932-1972 in Alabama by the US Public Health Service.
Antibiotic treatments were withheld from Black people so syphilis could be allowed to aggressively develop to map out the disease's progression. From the experiment it was concluded that Black people were more susceptible to contracting syphilis and hence they were more infectious. It was said that a DNA defect in Black populations meant the disease took on a more harmful form in their bodies.
This repulsive attitude persists as countries like the UK, US and Canada did not shy away from displaying deep-rooted xenophobia toward Black people when they claimed the Omicron mutation originated from South Africa.
Vaccines, vaccine certificates and Covid test results from African countries such as Ghana have had their validity scrutinised as not being legitimate or forgery prone, despite using digital QR codes as the primary method of verifying vaccine status.
Meanwhile, countries like the USA use pen and paper to print vaccine certificates, which could easily be forged. This invokes the stereotypes of the incompetence and feeble-mindedness of Black people and Africans, who are mistakenly deemed unable to organise themselves to carry out simple policy measures. Such stereotypes have a colonial and eugenic nostalgia about them.
Earlier on in the year, Bill Gates refused to share patents for the vaccine, meaning that vaccine production for the African continent has been hindered.
The international Covid vaccine supply programme COVAX has seen African countries at the bottom of the priority list. As a result, only 8.6 percent of the continent is fully vaccinated, with that number dropping to 0.09 percent of the population in DR Congo. Black and African lives are seen as expendable and of a lower priority perhaps because disease is seen as ubiquitous there.
The USA, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Turkiye all offered up citizens to have the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines tested. All of those countries and their corresponding continents have vaccinated populations that exceed the world average of 57 percent (with at least one dose) by quite a gap - apart from African countries, which fall substantially below that average.
That is despite the fact that South Africa came forward to help with Covid vaccine testing as was done in European and South American countries. This echoes the historical reality of widespread medical experimentation on Black people at their expense for everyone else’s benefit. It sends a message that South Africa and other Africans will be used to participate in clinical trials that benefit everyone apart from themselves.
Knowing our history is important as it allows us to visualise how history repeats itself, as it is currently doing. In order to stop this repetition, journalists, politicians, doctors and public health actors must all become aware of this history and individually and structurally commit to putting it to an end and righting these wrongs through their individual fields. If not, we will continue to be stuck in this vicious cycle with Black and African people.
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