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France24 headline about COVID-19 in Africa irks netizens as racist

Screenshot of France 24 March 01, headline for France24 COVID-19 story

On March 1, 2020, France24, a French news portal, reported on the low incidents of COVID-19 in Africa with this problematic headline” “With only three official cases, Africa's low coronavirus rate puzzles health experts”:

Whether it's a matter of faulty detection, climatic factors or simple fluke, the remarkably low rate of coronavirus infection in African countries, with their fragile health systems, continues to puzzle – and worry – experts.

The story interrogated the reasons behind the apparently low rate in Africa of COVID-19 disease that causes the deadly, contagious disease. However, many netizens read the headline as problematic because it echoes what history professor Melissa Graboyes describes as the stereotypical portrayal of Africa as a disease-ridden continent.

As of March 3, out of 90,892 reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, China leads with 80,303 cases, followed by South Korea with 4,812, Italy with 2,038 and Iran with 1,501 cases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO's situation report also shows that Algeria has five cases, Tunisia and Morocco have one case each while Egypt has two COVID-19 patients. On February 27, Nigeria became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to confirm a COVID-19 disease, followed by Senegal. The index patient in Nigeria is an Italian man; the first patient in Senegal is a French citizen and the index case in Morocco is a Moroccan living in Italy.

African netizens irked by the headline

“Why will anyone be worried that a killer virus is not spreading?” queried Nigerian netizen Oluniyi:

Dr. Furaha Asani decried this turning of the “humanity of a people” into “story props”:

It annoyed Nimah, from Nigeria, that Africa would be interrogated for not having enough COVID-19 cases:

Ghanaian Mac Jordan described the news report as racist:

Developed nations also infect poor nations with diseases

COVID-19 was carried into Nigeria by an Italian. The irony of which smacks in the face of transferring diseases from developed nations like Italy to “shithole” countries like Nigeria.

European colonialism has long served as a conduit for transferring diseases into African countries.

Dr. Sam Okuonzi, writing in the Ugandan daily New Vision, stated that in 1839, “six infectious diseases accounted for almost all deaths in Britain,” — tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and smallpox. There was “no record or history” that these diseases existed “outside Eurasia before the advent of European adventures.”

Smallpox was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese colonizers in the 15th century, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Global Black History, a digital repository of African history, notes that Cattle Rinderpest disease was introduced to Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa in the early 1890s by Italian traders. Global Black History further asserts that the introduction of “slave trade in East Africa produced new patterns of settlement” that triggered the breading of tsetse flies responsible for the death “some 200,000 people” due to “sleeping sickness” from “the Congo, to Lake Tanganyika and eventually Zambia.”

Learn from poorer countries

The framing of news stories around major catastrophes by mainstream global media easily falls into stereotypical, superficial labels. In the face of constant, negative news about Africa, it is easy to conclude that nothing good happens within the continent.

The COVID-19 virus has not yet spread within the continent — as experts have feared — for various reasons. A major one — that does not fit the bias of Africa as a disease-ridden continent — is that African health professionals are more ardent in fighting infectious diseases.

As of 2012, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, accounted for more than 50 percent of polio cases worldwide with about 200 children paralyzed by the disease, according to WHO.

By 2014, WHO affirmed that no single case of wild polio-virus had been reported in Nigeria and “all laboratory data confirmed” no new cases. Consequently, in 2015, WHO formally removed Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries.

Nigeria attained this historic feat by “interrupting the transmission of wild polio-virus for a period of 15 months,” — an achievement that surpassed WHO's targets.

Dramatic changes like these do not happen overnight. It took some level of expertise to attain.

The protocol developed for polio eradication was deployed in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. Nigerian health workers traced those infected by the index patient, which was described as an outstanding piece of epidemiological detective work by WHO.

As a result, the African Union deployed about 250 Nigerian health professionals to other countries within West Africa to fight Ebola. Also, “medical experts from the US and around the world” studied Nigeria’s triumph over the Ebola outbreak to replicate the same results in their countries, as reported by UN-supported ReliefWeb.

Lest we forget, the cure for Ebola was discovered by an African scientist, Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum of Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was no surprise that Muyembe-Tamfum’s discovery was not as widely shared as news about deaths from the Ebola disease in Africa.

Don't expect anything different this time around with COVID-19:

COVID-19 is a pandemic that will affect everyone around the world: It's time for the West to learn one or two things from counterparts in Africa who have so far stalled COVID-19 from running amok in the continent.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

1 comment

  • While the world continues to record high rates of Covid-19 (China: 3,070, Italia: 197, Iran: 124, Korea: 35, Japan: 12, France: 7,…), the low Covid-19’s rate in Africa surprise all the health experts. Except me. Though Senegal registers two cases (both french nationals) and Cameroon one (a national french of 58 years old), no death toll was communicated so far. The may be plausible explanation’s that Africa which already affected by infectious diseases, some very severe as Ebola (which costed 13,000 deaths 2015), or Sars, was immunized against Covid-19, because all three, nCoV-2019, Ebola and Sars were caused by a same pathogenic agent, Corona viruses. So, WHO decided to name nCoV-2019, as SarsCovid-19 II, though they’re susceptible to have each one modified genome sequence so that Covid-19 causes heavy death toll and broader spread than Ebola or Sars I (93 countries for 37 in case of Sars, much less for Ebola). Surveying the African immunity’s mechanism can help us to go ahead in vaccine’s research.

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