Belinda: On March 14, after my return to Vienna from a too-short stay in Accra, you sent me a link to Rufaro Samanga’s article that appeared on the OkayAfrica website. In this article, the author points to the ways in which European newspapers comment on COVID-19 on the African continent. Rufaro Samanga concludes that Europe is in “sheer disbelief” about how the continent seems to be not hit as gravely as Europe’s nation-states. Also here, in the Austrian newspapers, articles on COVID-19 in Africa seem to be just in line with the texts Rufaro Samanga criticizes – with titles like “Afrika vor einer Corona-Katastrophe” (Africa before a corona disaster) or “Die Explosion der Pandemie in Afrika steht noch bevor” (An explosion of the pandemic in Africa is imminent).
Epifania: Samanga’s piece is, unfortunately, very telling of continually skewed race relations across the globe – even in a digital age when you would expect that access to nuanced information on Africans (on the continent and in the diaspora) would mean we all should know better. But that is not the case. Africans, especially here on the continent, are still perceived as being incapable of dealing with everyday issues – never mind taking hold of our own destinies. So, you find that in a global pandemic such as this, Europe still assumes that Africa is unable to cope with the situation, even as the opposite is true on the ground. For example, here in Ghana, the government has shown itself to be up to the task of putting suitable health and travel security protocols in place.
Belinda: True. My recent experience of both the Ghanaian and Austrian responses to travelers during the pandemic speaks to this point. When I left Vienna on February 29, everything was as usual. COVID-19 seemed to be a problem that could be handled. Yes, the numbers were rising in Austria, but hardly anyone was wearing masks, and staff at the airport did not check our temperatures. In contrast, I was met by another atmosphere in Accra. When I arrived at Kotoka International Airport, all the passengers were being checked with infrared cameras for a high temperature. We had to fill out questionnaires concerning our whereabouts before arrival. Staff at the airport were dressed in protective suits. It was the same procedure when I left Accra two weeks later: several rounds of temperature checks, questionnaires, protective suits. Meanwhile, there were only a few cases on the African continent, and most were connected to people with European passports. By the time I was leaving Accra, masks were sold out. I remember that you even had to organize getting two for me.
None of this security checking happened when I returned to Vienna on March 13. I remember that I was irritated: “Were they not going to check people at the airport?” Friends had told me that the situation in Vienna was bad before I left Accra. I was even worried that I might not be able to enter the country. And some days later, Vienna International Airport was indeed closed, and a nation-wide lockdown was announced. Social distancing was the word of the day, and the Austrian chancellor proclaimed a new normality that would include all of us knowing someone who would die of COVID-19 – which did not prove to be valid, but that’s another topic.
While in Accra, I had seen more and more people with masks, refusing to shake hands or hug. Yet in Vienna, we were just starting to discuss whether wearing masks could be a useful measure. Never mind the fact that I had returned to rising numbers of people being hospitalized or who had self-quarantined. Rufaro Samanga rightly states that “Quarantine and self-isolation are not foreign concepts to us [Africans], but they appear to be for the West.” While the African continent has gained experience in dealing with pandemics, say Ebola or Sars, Europe was caught with its pants down, so to say. And the overwhelm showed in the new normal of half-empty shelves in supermarkets: people hoarding toilet paper, spaghetti, masks, and sanitizers. It was reflected in the closed schools, home schooling, restrictions on people’s right to move around, cancelled events and exhibitions, and the fact that people slowly started losing their jobs. It was also revealed in advertisements reminding people to a) be mindful of their contacts and b) to wash their hands.
It was only when the official lockdown was implemented in Austria that people finally began to wear masks on public transport and in institutions. And when they realized that yes, there was enough toilet paper for everyone, or that toilet paper is not the most necessary thing when in a pandemic, people eventually started to relax and refrain from filling their shopping carts as if these were their last days on earth. For most people here, it was possible to switch to working from home and – if they were responsible for children – to conducting home-schooling while practicing physical distancing. I don’t intend to say that it was easy for everyone. Grave differences between parts of the population have been exposed with new explicitness. For example, when it comes to education, some pupils are being left behind because their parents don’t have the means to support them with studying, or can’t access the infrastructure needed (e.g., computers, WIFI, etc.). Still, coming back to where I started, I wonder how you have experienced the outbreak of COVID-19 on the continent, and more specifically in Ghana.
Epifania: Here in Ghana, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the infection of 44,777 people, plus the deaths of 283 individuals – as compared to Austria’s figures of 29,087 infected people and 735 deaths (as of September 6, 2020). The virus has greatly slowed down the economy, and produced negative effects on agriculture, industry, and services. The government of Ghana has also been faced with the challenging task of trying to implement social distancing measures in a context where numerous individuals (over 80 percent of the population) work in the informal sector, including many who also struggle to meet daily survival needs and so have to labor daily. As a result, the government was forced to lift the partial lockdown it instituted in March 2020 for about three weeks. The lockdown – which included the closing of mosques, churches, schools, and the border – quickly revealed stark inequalities, especially in the country’s education system, including even private schools. But Ghana’s coronavirus challenges are not an anomaly, since all countries around the globe are struggling in varying degrees to maintain their economies, keep their citizenry alive, and mediate the gaping social inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.
In fact, the onset of the coronavirus has taken us all into a series of revelations about our relationships and character, and none of it is pretty. It has revealed all the problems at home that I would say are due to a “colonial matrix of power” that underscores many of the world’s uneven development and unequal positionalities: be they personal, local, national, regional and/or global. The unknown quality and life-threatening capacity of the virus has exposed a general lack of good governance – irrespective of location –, and (I would say) it is all thanks to the general dismantling of the public sector in the face of neoliberalism that insists on a free market economy. In the case of the African continent, this took root in the early 1980s – through the IMF and World Bank’s enforcement of detrimental structural adjustment programs. Here, I speak to a time when these two international financial institutions used loans as pivot points to impose development programs, on countries like Ghana, with the requirement of crippling conditionalities such as the devaluation of currencies, the explicit use of technology and expertise from loan countries, and the dismantling of public institutions and/or regulation that prevented the free reign of market forces. Consequently, all over the world, we see a general display of high social inequality, even if mildly differentiated, and this gross inequality can only be accounted for by the long and painful history of colonialism and its continued ideological and material effects through neoliberal global capitalism.
Belinda: Your argumentation points to the influence that Western policies had and continue to have on the continent’s fate. But in these articles we are talking about, there is no mention of the dismantling of the public sector in the 1980s, or even the afterlife of colonialism; i.e. the manifold ways in which the former colonial powers exploited and continue to exploit African nation-states. The explanation given is the same old record: corrupt political elites. And while this is often true, it is not the only explanation, and European journalists too easily forget that countries like Great Britain and France continue to influence African politics, sometimes through the very same corrupt elites that they criticize.
Epifania: Yes, indeed; hence, the recent debacle between France and the eight West African countries that have finally gotten the courage to stop using the CFA franc – a currency backed by France and used by its former colonies on the African continent years after their supposed independence. This financial change is an important statement of freedom from neo-colonialism, because it includes no longer having to hold 50 percent of each country’s reserves in the French Treasury. Nevertheless, COVID-19 still remains a true mirror for observing our unequal global relationships and the racist character of our international interactions. This can be seen through the resurgence of colonial narratives about the “dark continent,” particularly the so-called “doom and gloom” that awaits it in the face of a global pandemic that already has both Europe and North America on their knees.
Belinda: Yes, there is a renaissance of narratives about the “dark continent” and its constant balancing on the edge, always in danger of collapsing. This is right next to a comeback of racist stereotypes about Asian people, and Chinese people in particular. Not that these narratives have ever gone away, but it seems European journalists have no other way of integrating and making sense of the lower coronavirus numbers on the African continent, except by conjuring up a major health crisis, plus an impending danger, that would in an all too soon future hit an unaware and unprepared African continent. And luckily (of course), Europe is here – the big brother, the white savior –, and once again it will have to take care of Africa.
After coming across more and more of these articles, I remember that I sent you a message saying that while reading them an image had come to my mind: Europe circling above the African continent like a vulture, waiting for the whole continent to crumble. But all the while, I could not understand why European countries even spent time looking at Africa. In my opinion, they had enough on their own plates. In reality, Ghana, at that time, had only seven cases. “All,” as you wrote in your message, “from folk who traveled in from their trips abroad.” For example, the Norwegian ambassador who threw a party at his residence for over 200 people.
Epifania: True, we here in Ghana – at that time – had very little to worry about. We were in relative comfort and safety as we watched videos of overwhelmed Italian and US-American doctors going viral. In almost every video, Euro-North American frontline workers expressed their incredulity at how they could be experiencing a lack of basic health equipment (or resources) and the failed national-level coordination of basic public services – desperately required for an intense disaster such as this. Meanwhile, countries in Africa and also in Asia were quietly getting on with low-key, somewhat herbal, and often very commonsensical preventative measures – since they were in no doubt of the avalanche that would await them if they did not take the initial stages of the pandemic very seriously.
Unlike their Euro-North American, and in some cases Latin American, counterparts, they were not under any grand illusions of their defense capabilities. They were also not as interested in wasting time by deflecting attention from their own internal governance inadequacies by shedding unnecessary light on the failures of other locations around the globe, or by finger pointing at the proverbial alien (a.k.a. immigrant) enemy in their midst – in this case, the “kung flu,” as President Trump had the temerity to call it. They also had no time for global posturing, as they had no historic allusions/illusions of authority to maintain – even when no one is looking or cares.
It is this very same (and sad) case of a persistent “white man’s burden” that has reared its ugly head in the rather bizarre and baseless narratives, as well as in the curious absence of the well-practiced international coordination that is normally seen when there is a humanitarian crisis in the Global South. Where were all the expressions of global unity and leadership that prevailed under Ebola and Sars? You know, when imperial foreign powers love to show how good they are at assisting the Global South that cannot save itself. How is it that suddenly there was no longer honor amongst thieves? A case in point: our witnessing of the US government shamefully (and perhaps gleefully) pilfering Germany’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) while en route, all while also refusing China’s competent assistance for a totally failed US-national response that now supposedly makes “America Great Again” – sadly only through its first place on the corona list with almost 6.2 million cases and close to 200,000 deaths (as of September 6, 2020). Such terrible and uncalled for statistical strength!
Belinda: Is it not telling that the majority of European leaders were not able to see that, in contrast to them, African leaders and health professionals are not new to pandemics? Why not, for a change, ask African professionals for advice? What would have been an opportunity, proved to be too much of a paradigm shift. The European self-image is still in need of the deficient Other – Africa – in order to be able to position itself as its functioning opposite. This is, as you have said before, the only possibility to imagine oneself as the superior savior. Never mind that the reality did and still does not account for this way of interpreting the current crisis. These are colonial repercussions; that is the past ongoing.
Epifania: Yes, we find ourselves in the continued aftermath of well over 400 years of transatlantic slave trade that underscored many subsequent years of colonialism which have us, here, still in a state of scramble for Africa – even within the throes of our giddy (and some may even say: failed) struggles for independence. So then, it is no wonder that the othering narratives of victimhood and helplessness prevail – in spite of the growing confidence of the Global South and the ever rising of Africa, especially within the cultural, and thus ideological, milieu, all thanks to the arrogant buzz of millennials and the steady growth of economic and social links made between the African diaspora and like-minded creative souls on the African continent. So, it is very much a crying shame that we still have a situation whereby even Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, had to put aside diplomacy in order to give public comment about the inappropriate (and preposterous) idea of French doctors using Africans as guinea pigs for testing any kind of coronavirus vaccine.
Belinda: Discussions over a possible coronavirus vaccine have brought to light colonial ways of thinking more than ever. Jean-Paul Mira, leading doctor in a Parisian hospital, and Camille Locht, director of the INSERM institute (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research), which is conducting tests for a possible vaccine against the coronavirus on behalf of the French Health Ministry, were speaking on French TV at the beginning of April. Mira asked Locht – and I want to highlight here that he knew he was being provocative, he even stated that he would be – why the new vaccine shouldn’t also be tested in Africa. Furthermore, he said: “It would be a perfect testing ground as it is, so to say, a worst-case scenario; there are, for example, no masks, and no treatment opportunities. Just like HIV studies, it is possible to experiment on sex workers because everyone knows they don’t protect themselves and are exposed.”
Wow, let that sink in. This is very open. Mira is not even hiding his mindset. People on the continent, but also in the African diaspora, have rightfully reacted to his statements with outrage. How he came to the idea that there are no masks on the continent and no possibilities of treatment is incomprehensible to me. I do not know where he got his information from. The credo that allows someone to think that former colonial powers could just go to any African nation-state they please and have people tested is telling. In this, there is both an audacity but also a real-time politics in which, as we have said before, the interference of European powers – often former colonial powers – is not an exception, but a rule. Furthermore, there is the total fading out of African health professionals. People who clearly have expertise on the question of testing, pandemics, and health crises. For example, Amadou Alpha Sall, director of the Institut Pasteur in Dakar who has been developing a rapid diagnostic test.
The image of Africans/Black people being experimented on for the sake of white Europeans and Americans is, as we both know, not new. In the past, there have been lawsuits against European and American companies due to their unethical testing procedures on the African continent. Once again, I am reminded of the precarities that the afterlife of the enslavement of African people entails: “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment,” says Saidiya Hartman by way of Christina Sharpe. But what seems to mesh the fate of African Americans, seems to also have validity when it comes to African life, even though the contexts differ. What I read reminds me of Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, all subjects of James Marion Sims’s clinical research that he conducted on many more enslaved Black women in the nineteenth century; the names of many will never be retrieved. Or the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman again, whose cancerous cells were preserved without her consent. Black life was and is still not considered worthy.
The corona crisis is a magnifying glass through which to analyze and clearly see the relations that were built, not only on an individual, but also on a political and social level. The grave economic and social differences that have existed before are now mercilessly coming to light. The protests that we have been experiencing following the murder of George Floyd have once again shown that Black people are united in their experiences of anti-Blackness. I would wish that we – and here I am speaking to Black diasporans – would not only think about our own lot in the diaspora, but also start to criticize the countries we live in with much more pressure when it comes to their relations with the African continent and its people. Anti-Blackness is a climate, as Christina Sharpe rightly says, and this climate doesn’t stop at the borders of the African continent. Our struggle here is connected to the struggle for true independence on the continent; the project of independence, so to say, is yet to be fulfilled.
Epifania: And fulfill it we must, and perhaps will. Simply because there is, nowadays, a resounding difference in response from everyday people of African descent. This can be seen through something as simple as the many clap-backs of the Black Twitterverse and other responses through social media platforms, or more importantly through the unstoppable force of global movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, both started by articulate, alert, passionate and fully woke Black women – some of whom also belong to LGBTIQ communities and struggles. These social movements, and related acts of organized resistance, resonate and resound alongside those instigated on the African continent, e.g., Rhodes Must Fall. And together, they proclaim: Not on our watch! Not if we can help it. And yes, we most certainly can – especially in this highly interconnected and well-informed age.