It was inevitable that racism would rear its ugly head.
Having previously documented the long and shameful history of unethical drug testing on communities of colour across the globe, I was not surprised earlier this month when two French doctors proclaimed on national television that Africa would be the most appropriate location for a coronavirus vaccine trial. Never mind that this continent has the lowest recorded number of cases regionally.
For bigots who operate under the appalling assumption that black, brown, and other non-white bodies are easily expendable during times of crisis, COVID-19 presents the perfect storm. Yet, instead of expending energy on denouncing the doctors’ asinine comments, as so many have already done, we should be reflecting on what Africa and other regions of the so-called Global South have to teach the world in this collective moment of reckoning.
Call me naive in the heyday of apocalyptic projections about infections and deaths to come, but I prefer to focus on the silver lining. This is in some ways why I have been rolling my eyes at countless doomsday commentaries published by Western media outlets in which so-called Global North “experts” have argued that Africa, a continent of 54 diverse countries rumoured to be the final frontier of coronavirus, desperately needs saving. My response? Puh-lease!
Ordinary Africans, and their counterparts in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, are not navel-gazing or waiting around for the “mighty” Global North – itself in the bullseye of the virus – to come to the rescue. Even in the midst of constraints unheard of in Europe and North America, Global South folks are exemplifying the kind of ingenuity, generosity, solidarity, empathy and civility from which we all must learn. We should be borrowing from this playbook, not casting it aside.
Let’s start with my own country, Liberia, once destabilised by a 14-year intermittent armed conflict in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. During the deadliest ever Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, which killed more than 11,000 in West Africa alone, 22-year-old Liberian student nurse Fatu Kekula single-handedly treated three family members at home when they fell ill. She transformed rubbish bags into aprons, gloves and masks which became her very own retrofitted personal protective equipment (PPE) – a technique that resource-strapped healthcare workers in Europe and North America are now replicating.
Indeed, the Global South has both exported innovation and disseminated much needed “staff, stuff and systems“. While critiques abound, Cuba’s late March deployment of 52 medical workers to Italy was a stark and important exemplar of “South to North” medical humanitarianism. Once vilified for its socialist leadership and harshly sanctioned by the West, this island nation has a long history of dispatching health missions in times of calamity and tranquillity.
In keeping with Cuba’s efforts in Italy, Somalia followed suit by sending 20 doctors to aid the southern European country. Lest we forget, this Horn of Africa nation is recovering from protracted warfare, including current threats from al-Shabab armed fighters, which makes its intervention all the more admirable.
Though the United States has tightened sanctions against conflict-affected Iran and slammed crisis-prone Venezuela with narcoterrorism charges, countries across the Southern hemisphere have extended olive branches of support while the pandemic nears its peak.
Having faced virulent forms of Sinophobia as the initial epicentre of coronavirus, China has begun a global campaign to distribute medical supplies and expertise to African countries such as Algeria and Nigeria, with plans to deploy personnel to Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf in due course. Although not without controversy, such is the beauty of “South-South” cooperation.
Whereas others parroted early on the racist edict that COVID-19 was exclusively a Wuhan epidemic, Chinese philanthrocapitalist Jack Ma, of tech giant Alibaba fame, was one of the first billionaires to spring into action when he pledged $14m in late January to develop a vaccine to tame the virus. Regional heavyweight South Korea also proved its mettle by getting ahead of the curve with nation-wide testing and quarantining, earning international plaudits in the process.
In the likeness of South Korea’s proactive approach to virus prevention, Zimbabwe’s universities have shown that necessity is the mother of all inventions. As the country battles a chronic economic recession, including hyperinflation, with healthcare workers striking across the country, universities are manufacturing gloves, masks and hand sanitizers amidst a 21-day lockdown. Farther east, a factory in Kenya now produces 30,000 surgical masks a day to meet heightened national demand.
South Africa also has important lessons to impart. Because of the country’s experience researching and testing for HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, it has started developing locally-made COVID-19 tests and will embark shortly on a clinical trial for a vaccine.
It has been said a disease transported by upwardly mobile jet-setters – who have the wherewithal to huddle at homes and the resources to practice physical distancing when necessary – is now killing the poor and sedentary, who do not.
Yet, Global South traders in the so-called “informal sector” have defiantly dictated that one-size-fits-all coronavirus prevention measures will not work everywhere, that they hurt vulnerable populations in low-income countries, and that “top-down”, militarised lockdowns cannot be imposed on poor people without advanced warning or social protection schemes.
While some leaders in the Global South have unleashed physical brutality against their citizens under the guise of battling COVID-19, or blindly borrowed protocols from the North without understanding that context must drive policymaking, others, like Nigeria’s senators or senior members of Rwanda’s executive branch of government, have donated portions of their salaries for relief to poor households.
As Global North leaders jockey for power, undercutting each other in a bidding war over respirators, the Global South is unassuming in its instructions about the necessity of civility. Because whether rich or poor, black, brown, or white, young or old, man or woman, we are all in this existential catastrophe together. And while some of us may be more equipped than others to tackle it, the virus’ visa-free obliteration of borders and orders proves that no one is exempt from its ferocity.
Africa and other regions of the Global South have already demonstrated that they are far from passive centres for medical experimentation. Rather, they are the sites of home-grown solutions which should be transmitted globally.
As the celebrated Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy reminds us, coronavirus has not only exposed nature’s wrath against the crudeness of capitalism, but also forced us to imagine a better world beyond flattened curves, and, might I add, racist vitriol.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that 11,000 were infected during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It has been updated to clarify that 11,000 was the deathtoll from the outbreak.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.