BSR: Africa’s Plight: rebranding Covid-19 as an African disease

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The discovery of the Omicron variant in recent weeks has revealed disconcerting but not unfamiliar racial prejudices towards Africa and Black Africans. It all started with knee-jerk reactions from European countries in the wake of South Africa’s announcement of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. 

Soon after South African scientists dutifully and honestly alerted the world of the new variant, European countries shut their doors not only to South Africa but also its neighbors, most of which had no record of the variant at the time. Curiously, other countries like Belgium which had recorded cases of the variant were spared. The distinctive feature of these bans was that they were all imposed on African countries. There was no plausible scientific basis for this selective application of the rules. 

The blanket travel bans on South Africa and its neighbors were criticized for being tantamount to punishing South Africa for its scientific excellence in making the discovery and its transparency in alerting the world to the new variant. They could have kept quiet and waited for others to make the disclosure. The UN Secretary-General has joined the chorus of criticism, referring to the selective character of the travel bans on African countries as “travel apartheid”.

The fact that South Africa was the first to announce the discovery did not mean that it or its neighbors were the origins of the variant. Their excellence in the field had enabled them to identify the variant and they had done the right thing to alert the rest of the world where others might have remained silent. Indeed, as it turned out, the variant may already have been in existence in other countries well before South Africa’s discovery and disclosure. 

South Africa’s neighbor, Botswana, the source of the initial samples that led to the discovery of the variant announced that those samples had been obtained from four diplomats from a European country who had visited the country in early November. In a move that surprised many people in Africa, the President of Botswana avoided naming their country of origin. The European country in turn did not volunteer its identity. 

However, this did not matter to the knee-jerk reactors. Big media organizations such as the BBC were already calling it “the South African variant” immediately attaching the identity of the variant to an African country. It did not occur to them that this naming protocol had been criticized in the past after the Delta variant was referred to as the Indian variant. The Indian government had to write to social media companies asking them to remove references to the Delta variant as the Indian variant. 

Former US President Donald Trump caused outrage when he repeatedly referred to it as the “Chinese virus” in the early months of the pandemic because it had been discovered in Wuhan, a province in China. He also referred to it derogatorily as “Kung Flu”. China was critical of this characterization. There were concerns that it would lead to unfair attacks on the Asian American community. Research conducted by Donald Moynihan and Gregory Porumbescu showed that some Americans blamed Chinese Americans for the pandemic in the wake of Trump’s slur. The World Health Organization advises against linking pathogens “to a particular area or community to avoid discrimination or stigmatization”. 

Discrimination and stigmatization are good reasons why racialized language should not be employed to describe pathogens and disease. The media knew or should have known that it is improper to identify the variant with the place of its discovery. But they recklessly or maliciously disregarded laid down naming protocols and guidelines and went ahead anyway, calling it the “South African variant”. 

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization went out of its way to avoid offending the Chinese by skipping two names that could have been used to name the new variant. The WHO uses the Greek alphabet to name coronavirus variants to avoid the long scientific names. The next letters in line were “Nu” and “Xi”. The WHO avoided Nu claiming it was concerned it sounded too close to “new” and would be confusing. And “Xi” is a popular name in China which also happens to its current President’s name. The WHO was being politically correct and settled on Omicron. Clearly, the powers that be are fully conscious of the offence that might be caused by inappropriate naming[1].

The swift travel bans were a panic reaction to something sinister coming from Africa. Soon others followed the lead of Britain and the EU. Ironically, and disappointingly for the embattled Southern African region, some of their African peers like Rwanda and Angola also jumped on the European travel ban bandwagon. While the initial wave of blanket travel bans on Southern African countries was clearly problematic and most of it carried racial undertones, more blatant prejudice and scare-mongering directed at Africans would soon emerge in pockets of Europe and South East Asia. 

“The African virus is now with us”

One of the most extreme examples was a front-page story carried by Rheinpfalz Am Sonntag, a regional newspaper in Germany. “Das Virus aus Africa ist bei Uns” screamed the headline, which translates to “The Virus from Africa is now with us”. Overnight the coronavirus was now being described as coming from Africa. This was a misleading generalization that now located the virus’ origins in Africa. For a start, what had been discovered by South African scientists was a variant of a pre-existing virus.

Sure, it had been identified and first announced by South African scientists, but that did not make it an African virus as the headline implied. As already indicated, the virus was already in other parts of the world, including European countries. An Israeli doctor believes he contracted the Omicron variant in London where he had attended a large doctors’ conference before it was announced by South African scientists. And in Belgium, it is now emerging that the Omicron variant was already present much earlier than was originally thought. These findings illustrate the preposterousness of linking the variant to Southern Africa as the origin or indeed linking a variant to the place where it is first discovered and announced by scientists.  

Putting a Black face to the virus

However, the worst part of the report was the use of the image that accompanied it because it was a calculated assault on Blackness. It was a picture of a Black African woman and child both bearing a vacant gaze as if they were guilty bearers of the “virus from Africa”. There was no relationship between the story and the Black African woman and child; no indication whatsoever that they had been diagnosed with the Omicron variant. 

What then was the point of the image of the Black African woman and child except to strengthen the racial undertones of the story and to demonize a whole race and continent? The paper was making a vile and racist statement to its readers: these are the sources of the menacing virus! The editorial team knew the message it was communicating to its audience, and there was nothing nice about it. As a front-page story, it would have gone through the editorial stages, and they all agreed that it was proper to use that headline and the picture of the Black African woman and child. It was associating the virus with Black Africans, a form of repackaging and rebranding the virus as originating from Black Africans. The paper later issued a lame apology but the damage had already been done. 

The message is not lost on Black Africans and all those who understand the history of hostile representations of the African continent and its people throughout human history. Africa is perennially represented as “the other”; has been called the “Dark Continent” with people who are prone to disease. Many studies have been conducted concerning Africa and disease, with various theories being bandied about including whether Africans are genetically vulnerable to disease or it’s a matter of environmental factors. Some of these studies provided the basis of racial segregation in urban settlements, with the Black Africans not allowed to mix with the White settlers. 

There have been many problems in Africa but like in other indigenous territories and communities, imperial conquest also brought new pathogens and diseases. The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has defied narratives that place Africa as the source of pathogens and disease has confounded those who would expect it to be the source of the scourge. As the pandemic progressed, some were wondering why it had not caused more trouble on the world’s poorest continent. It was as if they expected it to hit hardest in a continent that has been described as “hopeless”.

Sometime in the early 2000s, The Economist ran a cover page which I found quite traumatizing at the time. I was young and had recently arrived in the United Kingdom where I had just started postgraduate studies. I took a glance at the newspapers on the newsstands and my eyes were drawn to a shocking headline in The Economist. “The Hopeless Continent”, the cover page screamed. Some of the words in the editorial have stuck in my mind: “It [Africa] has bugs, they are big, and they bite!”. I was with my new friends, and I found it quite hurtful and embarrassing. Sure, Africa has many problems, but did it warrant such representations in the 21st century? It was as if it had been written by a 19th-century traveler writing back to his audience in Europe and describing a dark place. 13 years after that headline, I saw that The Economist carried another, this time more optimistic cover page, “The Hopeful Continent”. 

Some Western travelers and writers have hardly moved from the times of their forebearers who produced similarly dark accounts that served as precursors and justifications for imperial conquest. Those narratives written back to their home audiences planted the seed that Africa and its peoples were mired in such darkness that they deserved to be frog-marched into Western civilization and the only way to do it was through colonization. By these accounts, Africa is perennially described as a sick continent. Is it surprising then that the German paper found it so easy to construct a narrative that ascribed the origins of the Omicron variant to Africa? Is it shocking why it was so convenient to strategically place an image of a guilty-looking Black African woman and child next to the vituperative article?

Some have suggested that it is a small newspaper in a region of Germany. This is probably meant to suggest that it is not representative of German society. I hope those who make this point are not making the mistake of dismissing an underlying problem that often lurks beneath a national façade. If the paper represents a pocket of German society, how many more pockets are there that share similar views?

The dangerous immigrant

If the bitter representations by the German paper were disgusting, another European newspaper, La Tribuna de Albacete, from Spain was launching its own racist missile, again pointing at Africa and Black Africans. The Spanish paper’s take was remarkable for bundling multiple narratives into one cartoon. The cartoon depicts coronavirus figures with human features. The coronavirus figures are dark in complexion with red lipstick, caricatures of Black Africans. They are in a small wooden boat bearing the flag of South Africa and emblazoned with the name “Omicron” crossing the sea and on their way to Europe. One of the figures with dark African hair stands at the front of the boat cupping his or her eyes to catch a sight of the shore where the flag of the European Union is hoisted.

The sinister messages are clear. First, the cartoon implies that Black Africans are bringing the coronavirus to Europe. This locates Africa and Black Africans as the source and careers of the menacing virus. They are, therefore, a danger to Europe. That there is racial profiling is plain. Both the German and Spanish newspapers chose to depict Black Africans as the sources of the virus, although Africa has people of many races, including White people and the virus does not discriminate between races. That they had to depict Black South Africans is not a mistake. They knew exactly what they were doing and the racist message they were sending to their audience.

The second message is a distinct reference to the threat of migrants from Africa to Europe. The issue of illegal immigration has been highly topical in Europe in recent years. Now, however, as the cartoon suggests, the danger is no longer just of illegal migrants from Africa but that they represent a greater menace because they are also the careers of the coronavirus. The Black Africans, therefore, present multiple risks to Europeans – not just as illegal migrants, but also as careers of the dreaded virus. The Spanish paper found a convenient opportunity to hit two birds with one stone.

Animalizing the Black African

On the other side of the world, a newspaper in Thailand, The Bangkok Post had another sinister headline: “Government hunts for African visitors”. They were referring to Africans from countries that had travel bans imposed upon them in the wake of the Omicron virus’ discovery. On the surface, one might dismiss it as a figure of speech. But the image of “hunting” betrays prejudicial attitudes towards Africans who historically have been “animalized” in narratives. 

The racialized depiction of Black Africans as animals is common. You only have to witness how African footballers are treated by racists in stadiums. Bananas are thrown at them because they are depicted as monkeys. Monkey chants are also directed at them communicating the racist message that they are animals. Therefore, when the language of hunting is directed at Africans, it triggers images of these animalistic representations. If you think this is overly sensitive, you have to consider the tame language used by the Thai paper to describe the response to Thai citizens who traveled from these African countries. Maybe as nationals, there was no need to “hunt” for them.

These media representations may look innocuous, but they are at the heart of the prejudice that pervades the treatment of Africa and Black Africans in other parts of the world. In this case, many Africans have rightly expressed their disgust at the racist undertones of these representations. In fact, to call them undertones is to understate their nature and impact. They are overt statements of racism and discrimination. 

More needs doing

There are various efforts at a high level to fight racism and racial prejudice, for example in elite football as footballers symbolically take the knee before English Premier League matches or other gestures in other countries before matches. But these and other efforts are unlikely to succeed without a more honest acceptance that it is a society-wide problem, not one confined to certain pockets. Some like to think that the racism that is witnessed at football stadiums in Europe is a problem that afflicts football alone. Actually, these are just manifestations of deeper problems in society. Old habits and attitudes die hard. They are passed generationally. And here we see them manifesting in media spaces where one might have thought there is more enlightenment.

Stop Vaccine and Travel Apartheid

Back to the Omicron variant, I can only echo the views of experts and campaigners for a better and more inclusive vaccination strategy around the world. As the pandemic spread, the African Union Special Envoy, Strive Masiyiwa who is also head of the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team raised important concerns over the inability of African countries to access vaccines. Many now call it vaccine-apartheid, where the rich countries have access to vaccination while poor African countries are at the back of the queue. “The big problem is a lack of sharing. So, the solution is more sharing,” said the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The hoarding of vaccines by the wealthy countries, while the poorer countries are deprived, is a sign of the pre-existing global inequalities.

But as experts rightly warn, no one is safe until the whole world is vaccinated. Simply focusing on vaccinating people in wealthy countries leaving out the rest of the world only increases the chances of breeding more variants. It does not solve the problem. Rather, it only exacerbates it. And when an African country discovers and announces a variant to the world, not only are Africans shut out from the rest of the world but the virus gradually gets rebranded as an African problem. As some have rightly said in the wake of those incendiary headlines discussed in this article, we are slowly witnessing the rebranding of the Covid-19 pandemic as an African disease. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last.

WaMagaisa 

Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent 

atm@kent.ac.uk 

wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk 

 [1] As the WHO explained in a statement, “Two letters were skipped – Nu and Xi – because Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new’ and XI was not used because it is a common surname and WHO best practices for naming new diseases (developed in conjunction with FAO and OIE back in 2015) suggest avoiding ‘causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’