Connect with us
close

Op-Eds

Black Bodies, White Spaces: The Complicit Reproduction of the African Tragedy by the Global Health Industry

4 min read.

The othering of Africa is an inexorable feature that sustains the West’s ability to imagine itself as intellectually and morally superior. These delusions of grandeur are maintained through enterprises like global public health that discursively reinforce conditions suggesting the need for Africa to remain financially and epistemically dependent on Western countries.

Published

on

Black Bodies, White Spaces: The Complicit Reproduction of the African Tragedy by the Global Health Industry

Africa entered the global COVID-19 discussion in typical fashion—shrouded in a discourse of lament and crisis. In April 2020, while New York City held on securely to the title of “COVID-epicenter” (after Italy relinquished the title), scholarship and opinion pieces proliferated, predicting that Africa’s demise was on the horizon. A public health expert writing for The World Economic Forum (WEF) warned that Africa had a “time bomb to diffuse.”

As wealthy countries grappled with their own inundated health systems, more Africans would die because the West could not afford to help. In May, Yale School of Medicine forecasted that by the end of June, 16.3 million Africans could contract the virus—a 135% increase in the number of cases from April to May and 39% increase from May to June. Lack of health infrastructure, high user fees, large refugee populations, high rates of comorbidity indicators, poor governance, corruption, and lack of sanitation were just some of the factors informing the anticipated COVID-related death toll in Africa.

Studies like these were plentiful in the early months of the pandemic. The reality, however, strayed far from the science and expert opinions. By August, the number of COVID cases on the continent remained low in both absolute and proportional terms. This time, the experts began to postulate why Africans were not dying as they had predicted. In the aftermaths of these errant conjectures, headlines like “Scientists can’t explain puzzling lack of Coronavirus outbreaks in Africa” dotted the media landscape. Again, public health experts returned to what they had previously adumbrated as exposing the continent to high cases of COVID-19—poverty, population density, demographic structures, co-morbidity factors. Some even suggested that the numbers were a result of low testing, which has since been disproven. What the predictions hadn’t taken into account was how quick to act most African countries would be.

Ghana was one of the first countries to close all of its land and sea borders. For nations that had been impacted by Ebola, there was still infrastructure in place to respond to COVID, thus minimizing spread. Senegal and Rwanda also had noteworthy responses characterized by innovative solutions to treatment and contact tracing. The African Union coordinated with other regional partners to establish the African Medical Supplies Platform—a virtual marketplace where governments and health officials can directly purchase essential medical supplies.

What these failed predictions depict is how the global public health industry is complicit in the reproduction of what Malinda Smith calls “the African tragedy”—the uncritical epistemic industry that has long produced knowledge of African development as a monolithic and primordial tragedy. This intellectual space is generally inhabited by development economists giving credence only to internal factors like  “good” governance and economic institutions.

The African tragedy is maintained through a valence of objective and quantifiable science that obscures racists and un-reflexive discourses about the continent. Global health, just like development economists, begin their inquiries and predictions for the dissemination of COVID-19 in Africa with a set of assumptions that rely on an undifferentiated continent with no possible positive attributes to contain the spread of the virus. We saw evidence of this when two French doctors expressed how vaccine trials should take place in Africa because there are “no masks, no treatments, no ICUs” and “they are highly exposed and they don’t protect themselves.”

Outrage ensued from these comments, with the head of the World Health Organization calling it a “hangover from colonial mentality.” Yet, how different are these comments from the underlying reasons that informed early predictions that Africa would be ravaged by COVID? When some African countries far exceeded expectations, headlines foreshadowed that the worst was yet to come. The New York Times recently proposed that the “extra time” that had been bought by the slow spread of the virus was not enough to bolster weak health care systems, which would soon bring about the originally anticipated number of cases for the continent.

More recently the rise in cases and COVID-related deaths in Africa has been tied to the highly transmissible South African variant of the virus. Here, again, public health officials did not anticipate that the primary factor leading to increased COVID-19 cases in Africa would be a more contagious version of the virus, once again shifting our attention from dilapidated health infrastructure to public health questions that transcend expected disaster. The disaggregated country-level data shows that most African countries continue to control the spread of the virus and mortality rates—still faring better than many wealthier nations.

An appeal to the African tragedy is never about the fundamental causes of poverty, lack of infrastructure, or corruption. These factors cannot be addressed by more aid and development interventions. Solutions to these public health problems demand a fundamental restructuring of the economic and political order.

We see steps in this direction with respect to the People’s Vaccine Alliance—a coalition of governments and actors from the Global South demanding that the publicly-funded COVID-19 vaccine be considered a public good. These demands come as wealthier countries comprising only 14% of the global population have purchased 53% of the more promising COVID-19 vaccine. Countries in the Global South have taken to the WTO to demand that the WTO suspend TRIPS (the trade related aspects of intellectual property rights) to ensure that all countries have access to the requisite health resources for controlling the virus.

V.Y. Mudimbe expresses how the othering of Africa is an inexorable feature in the invention of Africa. It sustains the West’s ability to imagine itself as intellectually and morally superior. These delusions of grandeur are maintained through enterprises like global public health that discursively reinforce conditions suggesting the need for Africa to remain financially and epistemically dependent on Western countries.

The forecasting of COVID-related deaths was accompanied by a call for the world to “save Africa.” Brain drain, land seizures for natural resource extraction, covetous intellectual property rights, and histories of medical racism, have all contributed to the conditions that would have led public health experts to predict that COVID would ravage the continent.

Many West African countries are still rebounding from the effects that the World Bank and IMF-backed Bamako Initiative wrought on their health care systems. To make these issues salient, however, is to share accountability for the African tragedy with the international community.


This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

Avatar
By

T. D. Harper-Shipman is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. Kim Bako is a senior public health major at Davidson College.

Op-Eds

The G20 Is Gathering. Debt Justice Is Our Demand

As the G20 meet to discuss the global economic recovery, the Debt Justice group calls for a radical break with extraction and austerity — and proposes a new system in its place.

Published

on

The G20 Is Gathering - Debt Justice Is Our Demand

A tsunami of debt has crashed over the world, and billions of people are drowning. This week, the G20 will meet to decide the direction of global economic recovery. Their power — and their responsibility — point in one direction: drop debt, drive investment, and deliver justice for all peoples of the world.

The pandemic has accelerated inequalities across the planet. Workers have lost $3.7 trillion in income, while billionaires have increased their wealth by $3.9 trillion. Wealthy countries have invested trillions of dollars to inflate their economies. But poor countries have been paralyzed by a $2.5 trillion financing gap that has prevented sufficient pandemic response.

Of more than $13 trillion spent on pandemic recovery worldwide, less than one per cent has gone to the Global South.

But things can get much worse. Before the pandemic, 64 lower-income countries were already spending more to service their international debts than on strengthening their local health systems. Now, the burden of their public debts has increased by around $1.9 trillion — four times the size of Sub-Saharan economy.

The ability to borrow money is critical to government capacity. The domination of imperial currencies like the US dollar, however, means that governments in the Global South must borrow in a foreign currency — and these debts come with higher interest rates than those of their foreign neighbors.

Even in good times, the global economy works to extract cash from the South to deliver to the North.

But when crises hit, Southern currencies lose value against the dollar at the same time that public revenues dry up. The result is a deadly trade-off. To repay debt means shredding the social safety net — a net that stands between billions of people and severe poverty. But failure to pay may be even worse: poor countries risk losing their ability to borrow in the future — all but guaranteeing the disappearance of the safety net they have now.

As the major creditors to the world, the G20 governments have done little to address this deadly trade-off. In 2020, the G20 suspended only 1.66% of the total debt payments due by lower income countries. Instead, they protected the power of vulture funds and holdout creditors to collect money that is desperately needed for response, recovery and climate action.

The G20 have now offered a ‘Common Framework’ to address the emerging debt crisis. This offer is an ultimatum. Either renew the vicious cycle — of indebtedness, austerity, and privatisation — or enter complete financial meltdown.

The G20 Common Framework is not a lifeline for the governments of the Global South. It is their debtors’ prison.

We need to break this system of neo-colonial exploitation — and replace it with a system centred on debt justice and the delivery of green and just transitions everywhere.

What, then, are our demands of the G20?

First, every creditor must participate. In the last ten years alone, private creditors like BlackRock and Glencore have doubled their share of lower income government debt. The G20 must compel all creditors to come to the table and end their exploitation of government desperation.

Second, the G20 must give all countries the chance to restructure their debt — not just those deemed cheap enough by creditors. The G20 system of debt relief serves creditors who give feeble concessions for ‘cheaper’ countries while leaving others to descend deeper into crisis. A debt workout process must be available to any country that asks for it.

Third, the debt workout system must move out of the hands of creditors and into transparent, multilateral oversight. Secrecy and complexity only protect creditors at the expense of self-determination.

Fourth, the system cannot be measured by a ‘Debt Sustainability Framework’ that is designed by the creditors themselves. We need independent debt assessments that incorporate debtors’ basic concerns for health, welfare, and development.

Fifth — and crucially — the G20 must move ahead with real debt cancellation. This is not a short-term liquidity crisis. Only large-scale write-offs will get debt to sustainable levels and kickstart recovery.

Sixth, the G20 must put a final end to austerity. Austerity conditionalities have exposed countries to waves of crises, intensified inequalities, and hollowed out public health systems. It is time to turn on the taps to secure green and just transitions everywhere.

The G20 will try and tell us that they’re doing everything they can — that we should be thankful for their efforts. But the world is not suffering from a lack of resource. We suffer because gargantuan amounts of cash are funneled into the pockets of the few. There is no shortage of ideas we can pursue to reverse this flow. What we lack is the political will, and we won’t stop until we get it.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory

The successful attack on Capitol Hill will fuel years of recruitment and mythologising for post-Trump extremists.

Published

on

USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory

This article was first published by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

As attacks grow more shocking and dramatic, the size of their audience increases accordingly. While most observers are terrified and outraged by such violence, a small minority become inspired enough to plan attacks of their own. This is how extremist movements grow. This is how they seek to bend the world to their will.

Social media has dramatically increased the effectiveness of spectacular acts of terror. In 2014, ISIS militants used the viral executions of two American hostages to declare war on the United States. They were rewarded with an exponential increase in Western media coverage and tens of thousands of recruits from more than 100 countries. In 2019, a New Zealand-based white supremacist livestreamed his murder of 51 Muslim congregants in the city of Christchurch. His actions prompted numerous copycat attacks and a global resurgence of white ethno-nationalism.

Yet the media impact and symbolic power of these attacks are dwarfed by the events of January 6, 2021, during which far-right extremists stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol at the encouragement of President Trump. Several carried firearms. Others reportedly planted improvised explosive devices. In less than two hours, they overwhelmed federal police and forced the Congress to flee. They breached the seat of American government that had stood inviolate for 211 years. It was a violent, extraordinary, unthinkable victory; one whose images and videos captivated the world.

This was the most spectacular domestic extremist attack in American history. The individuals who perpetrated this attack will be mythologized as heroes among future extremists. A generation of far-right recruits too young to have participated will spend their lives dreaming of again seizing the U.S. Capitol. In the words of writer Osita Nwanevu, this will become the “Woodstock” of the far-right — the victory and spectacle by which all future actions are measured.

Many of the individuals who directly participated in this action have undergone years of radicalization in extremist online communities and developed a unique culture steeped in ironic violence. They have come to venerate street fighting as the ultimate form of political expression and can name various skirmishes — the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, protests in Berkeley and Portland, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the deadly counter-protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — as a veteran might count battles. Their ranks have swelled in recent months thanks to the popularity of the QAnon delusion and baseless claims of voter fraud that have been aggressively amplified by Trump and his allies.

In some ways, the attack on the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of this violent and conspiratorial movement of pro-Trump communities. Yet because the attack was so catastrophically effective, it also represents the birth of the post-Trump extremist movement. As casual Trump supporters peel away from the network in the weeks to come, they will be replaced by a new cadre who are less politically engaged but far more likely to undertake acts of violence. So it has been with the evolution of extremist movements around the world; so it will now be in the United States.

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

Two factors will make this post-Trump extremist movement uniquely dangerous. The first is the transition to anti-state violence. Participants in the January 6 attack routinely assaulted U.S. Capitol Police (often, ironically, while carrying pro-police paraphernalia). Following the killing of one female participant by law enforcement, online supporters of the attack darkly speculated that the police had been infiltrated by antifa “terrorists.” The woman was quickly recast as a martyr, one whose death might be the spark of a bloody revolution.

Previous far-right, anti-state movements have struggled to gain traction under the Trump presidency. The most successful of these — the so-called “Boogaloo” movement — hid its overt anti-state violence under layers of subtext and irony. When Boogaloo supporters did engage in acts of anti-state terrorism, as with the murder of two California security officers in June 2020, they sapped the movement of popular support. Under a Biden administration, however, this cognitive dissonance will no longer be an issue. If state authorities are seen to be corrupt and working at the behest of a Democratic administration, they will be targets.

The second factor is the mainstream popularity of the far-right extremist movement in the United States. For years, Trump has conditioned Republican voters to support violence as a means of settling political disputes. From the podium, Trump has regularly encouraged assaults on journalists and dehumanized racial and ethnic minorities. This rhetoric has carried terrible consequences. According to a January 6 YouGov poll, 45 percent of Republican voters supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol, seeing it as just another kind of political expression.

This means that a post-Trump extremist movement — even one that routinely engages in violence — may benefit from a level of political support not seen since that of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction-era American South. And so long as the movement remains politically popular, there will be politicians who seek to court it. As much could already be seen when the U.S. Congress reconvened early in the morning of January 7. In their remarks, several Republican legislators sought to trivialize or excuse the attack that had forced them from their chamber. Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-1) went so far as to blame antifa activists, whom he alleged — without evidence — had initiated the attack to give Trump supporters a bad name.

The violent extremist movement inspired by the events of January 6 will rank as one of the great challenges of the Biden presidency. Diminishing the strength of this movement will require disentangling isolated, angry Trump supporters from the much smaller core of extremists who seek to do Americans harm. It will require sapping the January 6 attack of its myth-making potential and to ensure that it is viewed, rightly, as a national embarrassment. Most of all, it will require confronting the pundits and conspiracy theorists who will seek to boost the far-right extremist movement in a grasping bid to retain their relevancy.

This work must begin immediately. The stakes were high before. They are higher now.

The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy

Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor were acutely aware of the need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonization in order to transcend it.

Published

on

Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy
Photo: Unsplash/berenice melis

In “decolonial” discourse, the African leadership landscape is flattened to the point of becoming a caricature. In an earlier variation of this caricature, Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction of “seek ye first the political kingdom” was presented by political scientist Ali Mazrui as a deficient obsession with political power to the neglect of the economic. In the current variation, the neglect of epistemic “decoloniality” is characterised as the deficient underbelly of the “nationalist” movement.

Kwame Nkrumah, Sédar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere are not only three of the most cerebral figures of Africa’s “nationalist” movement, but unlike Amilcar Cabral they lived to lead their countries in the aftermath of formal colonial rule.

Contrary declarations notwithstanding, Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere were acutely aware of the colonial epistemological project and the need to transcend it. Indeed, philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s re-reading of Negritude as epistemology argued that its salience lies in the dissolution of the binary opposition of subject and object in the logic of René Descartes. Whatever one’s take on the specificity of Senghor’s claims of Africa’s modes of knowing—by insisting on the interconnectedness of subject and object—he deliberately sought to mark out what is deficient in modern European epistemology and valorise African systems of knowledge. This epistemological project is built on a distinct African ontological premise.

Nkrumah and Nyerere were most acutely aware of the urgent need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonisation. In the case of Nkrumah, the imperative of epistemic decolonisation was most forcefully expressed in the 1962 launch of the Encyclopedia Africana project, initially with W.E.B. Du Bois as editor, and the 1963 launch of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Nkrumah’s 1963 speech at the launch of the Institute stressed the epistemic erasure at the heart of colonialism, linking political and epistemic freedom. “It is only in conditions of total freedom and independence from foreign rule and interferences that the aspirations of our people will see real fulfillment and the African genius finds its best expression,” Nkrumah argued. If colonialism involves the study of Africa from the standpoint of the colonialist, the new Institute of African Studies was charged with studying Africa from the standpoint of Africans. Its responsibility, Nkrumah argued, is the excavation, validation, restoration, and valorisation of African knowledge systems.

Nkrumah exhorted the staff and students at the new Institute to “embrace and develop those aspirations and responsibilities which are clearly essential for maintaining a progressive and dynamic African society.” The study of Africa’s “history, culture, and institutions, languages and arts” must be done, Nkrumah insisted, in “new African centered ways—in entire freedom from the propositions and presuppositions of the colonial epoch.” It is also worth remembering that the subtitle of the most philosophical of Nkrumah’s writings, Consciencism, is “philosophy and ideology for de-colonization.

Much is made about Nyerere surrounding “himself with foreign ‘Fabian socialists.’” Yet the most profound influence on Nyerere’s thoughts and practice was not the varieties of European “socialisms” but the “socialism” of the African village in which he was born and raised—with its norms of mutuality, convivial hospitality, and shared labour. Nyerere’s modes of sense-making (which after all is what epistemology means) was rooted in this ontology and norms of sociality.

For Nyerere, the ethics that are inherent in these norms of sociality stand in sharp contrast to the colonial project. It was, perhaps, in Education for Self-Reliance (1967) that Nyerere set out, most clearly, the task of the educational system in postcolonial Tanganyika, one that is not simply about the production of technical skill but the contents of its pedagogy. It is a pedagogy that requires the transformation of the inherited colonial system of education (Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism, 1968). The pedagogy is anchored on the three principles of Nyerere’s idea of a society framed by African socialism: “quality and respect for human dignity; sharing of the resources which are produced by our efforts; work by everyone and exploitation by none.” It frames the ethics of a new, postcolonial society.

Whatever their limitations, it was not for lack of aspiration and imagination. Nyerere is the one who most aptly communicated to us the responsibility of the current generation to pick up the baton where the older generation laid it down. The struggle for political independence was never understood as an end in itself. The ‘flag independence’ we so decry makes possible the task that subsequent generations must undertake and fulfill. The task of realising the postcolonial vision is as much a responsibility of the current generation as it was of the older generation.

Finally, as Mwalimu reminds us, on matters concerning Africa, “the sin of despair would be the most unforgivable.” Avoiding that sin starts with acknowledging and embracing the positive efforts of the older generation while advancing the pan-African project today.

This piece is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent recapturing progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading

Trending