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Updated Apr 10, 2020

On April 1, two French doctors sparked a major controversy when they suggested testing a COVID-19 vaccine on people in Africa, because of the general lack of personal protective equipment and medical facilities. Almost immediately, the responses came flooding in, variations on “Africa is not a testing lab!” or asserting the comments were rooted in a paternalistic form of racism. Karsten Noko, writing for Al Jazeera, posits that the sentiment was nothing new and a continuation of what he terms “medical colonialism”.

In his piece, Noko points to several instances of North American and European pharmaceutical companies and researchers taking advantage of the lack of protection for patients in Africa in the pursuit of profit. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, more than 250,000 blood samples were taken by laboratories in France, the UK, and the US to develop a vaccine, without informed consent. In 1996, Pfizer conducted clinical trials for a drug to treat meningitis in children, again without receiving informed consent from the parents. One infamous moment of many during Germany’s colonial history in Africa was a series of sterilization tests done on Herero women in modern-day Namibia.

All of this is emphasized to illustrate that the comments by these two French doctors do not reflect the aberrant views of a fringe minority nor a “clumsily expressed” statement, as one of the doctors described it. Rather, it’s the direct outgrowth of colonial thinking, whereby the “civilized” West rushes to the rescue of the “underdeveloped” Global South. A similar idea was touched upon by Ann Neumann for The Baffler, discussing the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A survey of beliefs about Ebola in the DRC conducted by The Lancet last year found that a quarter of respondents didn’t believe Ebola existed, and one-third believed the virus had been fabricated for financial benefit or political destabilization. Neumann cites this study to point out that the Congolese people’s distrust of medical workers and even rejection of WHO guidelines wasn’t the product of ignorance, as some news outlets presumed, but instead a mistrust where, “century after century, Western involvement brings death and destruction for the sake of profit”. 

This mistrust not only makes it more difficult for preventative guidelines to be followed, but it also endangers medical personnel operating in more volatile parts of Africa. In the eastern DRC, where the Ebola outbreak was concentrated, foreign medical workers were attacked and even killed by local rebel groups.

African people and medical personnel genuinely trying to help patients end up suffering due to the kind of thinking, exemplified by the French doctors, that replicates the rhetoric of colonialism. Given the reports of unethical clinical trials in Africa by multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical companies, Africans can scarcely be blamed for believing the two doctors’ remarks to be a continuation of the colonial approach of seeing them as expendable.

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