Last Wednesday, a French doctor caused controversy when he proposed that vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic be tried on Africans because they lack masks and other personal protective equipment.
By Friday, after widespread accusations of racism, he was forced to apologise for what he then called his “clumsily expressed” remarks.
But the type of thinking exposed by his words is nothing new. Neither is it exceptional to this doctor. It is part of a trend that for generations has seen the dehumanising of some people because of the superiority complex of others.
In early March 2020, as coronavirus cases began an exponential growth curve, some people asked why African countries were not recording higher numbers of COVID-19 cases.
The tone of these queries had the impact of questioning if Africans were somehow genetically immune to the new virus. But why would this question even be raised if we know the biological set-up of all humans is similar?
The dehumanisation of people from the Global South was one of the driving forces behind the slave trade and colonialism. It is inconceivable that anyone could fathom the thought of trading in human beings unless they regarded that person as inferior.
Joseph Conrad, in his book Heart of Darkness writing in 1899, grappled with the question of whether the people he had met in Africa were really human. He opines: “No they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman.”
It is the naturalness of someone even posing such questions that cements these ideas; the acceptance of a “second-class humanity” that allows the dispossession and trade in human lives to be so easily explained away.
Dehumanised in life, fetishised in death
Saartjie Baartman, or Sarah Baartman as she is commonly called, was a Khoikhoi woman born in what is present-day South Africa. In 1810, she was abducted and taken to Europe where she was turned into an object of an exhibition for European audiences because of her body and her perceived large buttocks.
Many of the audience members came to see her because they thought that she was not human. When she died, a French surgeon dissected her body and concluded that she had ape-like features.
In 2002, the South African government finally managed to retrieve her body from the French National Museum in Paris where her remains had stood in exhibit for more than 150 years. Baartman was dehumanised in life, and fetishised in death, in pursuit of a scientific theory that sought to draw biological and scientific differences between white and black people.
Two centuries after Baartman’s death, the dehumanisation of certain races is not put on display in such an obvious way. But the trend of using some bodies for the benefit of others continues in different forms.
In the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak, for instance, more than 250,000 blood samples were collected from patients by laboratories in France, the UK and the US among others – often with no informed consent – as patients underwent testing and treatment for Ebola, to help researchers create new vaccines and medicines.
Today, South African, French and American researchers refuse to disclose how many of these samples they still hold, citing “national security” as an excuse. As one patient remarked, “They are using it to make research, make billions of dollars … That medicine they produce will not be free. It will be something that you will sell.”
Because the affected communities are poorer and people lack the information that will help protect them from such researchers, their samples are taken, and used at will to produce medicine for people who will pay for treatment – often without their knowledge.
A long history of medical trials
In 1996, Kano State in Nigeria was the epicentre of a huge meningitis outbreak. At the time, Pfizer, one of the largest research pharmaceutical companies in the world, decided to conduct clinical trials to test a drug it was developing.
Pfizer neglected to acquire informed consent from the parents of the patients, who were, anyway, too stressed to make rational decisions. It was only in 2009 that Pfizer settled out-of-court and paid $75 million to the Kano State government and $175,000 to the parents of four of the children who had died during the outbreak and clinical trials.
Although Pfizer argued in its legal defence that the children had been killed by the disease and not their drugs, the out-of-court settlement robbed us of an opportunity to have the medical facts established before a court of law.
Similar trials and tests were conducted in Zimbabwe in 1994 with the drug AZT – projects funded by the US-based CDC and NIH resulted in adverse effects for patients. In Namibia in the early 1900s, sterilisation tests were done on Herero women by German doctors who sought to provide “scientific” backing to ban mixed-race marriages.
Researchers know only too well that conducting such research in the Global North is more onerous and has too much red tape. In the Global South, big pharmaceuticals, often with the complicit support of bribed government officials, have it easy.
As they chase huge profits, the lives of often uninformed patients are far from a main consideration. For many people from the affected communities, the work of researchers is clearly meant to serve the financial interests of those who pretend to be kind-hearted or philanthropic.
What remains curious is how diseases like TB, malaria and hepatitis continue to kill millions every year, and yet the amount of energy and resources being put into eradicating them is nowhere near the efforts against COVID-19 and Ebola. It would appear that certain diseases get more attention because of the people they affect or potentially threaten.
In 2011, the CIA, under the cover of an international NGO, collected DNA samples in Pakistan in a fake vaccination campaign as they trailed Osama bin Laden. The move had the impact of straining an already complicated relationship between the US and Pakistan, but it also had the much wider impact of providing proof to the sceptics who always suspected there was a hidden agenda in the delivery of medical services from the Global North.
In the race to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the last thing overburdened health practitioners need is some so-called “clumsy” remarks from a fellow medic.
But when a French doctor suggests that Africa must be included as part of a vaccine trial, it is not surprising that suspicions and anger are reignited – especially when there are relatively fewer cases on the continent than there are in Europe and the US.
Given the history of medical colonialism in Africa, and the current realities around the spread of COVID-19, how do we begin to persuade anyone that those remarks were something other than the continuation of a racist, dehumanising approach that sees some humans as expendable?
How are Africans expected to not react to yet another attempt to use them as guinea pigs to develop drugs that would serve the Global North, whose well-funded health systems can afford the hefty-priced life-saving medication that Africans themselves often die without?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.