On March 25, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan would be postponed until 2021. One of the main reasons the IOC gave for this unprecedented move was that there was a surge in COVID-19 cases being reported in Africa–and that this would then “affect the entire world.”
While IOC President Thomas Bach did not single out Africa’s cases as the sole rationale for postponing the games, he did say that it was “significant.” Bach went on to say that the prospect of the virus spreading in the “huge continent” was a “very big worry,” and underscored that African countries already face major challenges, which, presumably, made Africa’s (not yet recorded) cases a global problem.
It was curious that Bach was most worried about Africa, because at that point in the pandemic, Italy and Spain were the global hotspots of the disease; Europe had overtaken Asia as the epicenter of COVID-19 in early March. The U.S. at this time had over 65,000 cases, against a global tally of over 434,000 cases. Africa as a whole had recorded just over 2,200 cases – my own country, Kenya, had 28 cases on that last week of March.
As of September 8, 2020, there have been 1.3 million COVID-19 infections in Africa and almost 31,500 deaths. In just the US alone, there have been 6.42 million infections and 193,000 deaths.
But for some reason, over the past six months, the focus has been on the relative “lack” of African cases and deaths. The question asked again and again (and again and again), in a nutshell: “How come Africans are not dying? Why is COVID-19 spreading like wildfire here (in the West), and not there (in Africa)?“
This, when taken at face value, seems to be an innocent one, a genuine query asked from a desire to figure out what, in fact, is responsible for Africa’s relatively low cases. And it is worth investigating, of course – any lead that can help the world beat this disease is worth pursuing.
Those of us who are acquainted with older sorrows, however, hear something else when those ostensibly benign questions are asked. After a while, it starts to sound like – Africans should be dying, so why aren’t they?
The expectation of death is a heavy one to live under – the reality of disproportionate death, even more so. Womanist theologian Emilie Townes calls it living under “the fine rain of death.” As an African, one learns quickly that disease and suffering are almost synonymous with ‘black’ and especially with ‘African’ in the Western imagination.
Sometimes it is overt and contemptuous, like when you are applying for a visa to a Western country and the visa officer tells you outright that they don’t want Africans spreading disease in their country, and so you have to be screened for tuberculosis.
Sometimes it is routine and mechanical, as in the way airlines spray insecticide in the cabin on flights leaving an African city like Nairobi, destined for New York or London, but never on planes going the other way – as if Africa can only ever be a source of disease, but never a destination. [COVID-19 has shown us that this is definitively not true. In the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, an analysis of travel data against cases showed that 45 of the 47 index cases came from outside the continent. 21 percent were linked to travelers coming in from France, 16 percent from the UK, 13.5 percent from the United Arab Emirates and about 7 percent each from Italy and the US.]
Other times it is a cruel irony, like when the president of Algeria’s National Commission of the Promotion of Human Rights, Farouk Ksentini, justified a sudden mass expulsion of Black African migrants from Algiers in December 2016 by saying to a national newspaper “the presence of African migrants and refugees in several localities of the country could cause problems for the Algerians, notably the spread of AIDS. Hence, the decision of the Algerian authorities to expel them in order to avoid a catastrophe.”
First, Algeria is in Africa – North Africa, but still Africa. Second, to have a human rights official speak about Africans in this way is evidence of – to paraphrase Arendt and quote Coates – the banality of racism.
It is this bewilderment that I see playing out in the global response to Africa’s relatively low case load – the Western world doesn’t know what to do with a disease that isn’t, for some reason, battering the places and people for whom there is a built-in expectation of catastrophe. Beneath the question – why aren’t people over there dying, and we are? – is the unspoken expectation that whiteness and exceptionalism buys one out of certain vulnerabilities, and perhaps the most concrete of these is infectious disease.
This conflation of blackness with disease is two-fold: not only does being Black make you a vector of disease, but blackness is disease – an infection to the broader ‘healthy’ racial body, i.e. whiteness. Perhaps this is why many times just few Black people at a time are admitted to prestigious and predominantly white spaces, as a kind of vaccination – a small, controlled group that prevents broader ‘contamination.’
So, why hasn’t Africa seen the kind of caseloads that have been recorded in other parts of the world?
Various theories have been put forward. The warm, sunny or humid weather is one, which apparently slows down the spread of the virus. But this cannot be the only reason — not all places in Africa are warm, sunny or humid. And some humid places, like Singapore, had early community transmission of the virus.
The low mortality rate could be because Africa is the youngest continent demographically, with more than 60% of the population under the age of 25, and, globally, older people have been the age group most impacted by the disease.
Or it could be because of widespread prevalence of the BCG vaccine – short for Bacillus Calmette-Guerin – a mandatory vaccine against tuberculosis given at birth in most, if not all, African countries. Two clinical trials, one in Australia and the other in the Netherlands, are investigating the vaccine’s possible ability to boost the immune system, which could protect healthcare workers against Covid-19 symptoms. (The research is inconclusive for now, but still ongoing.)
Beyond these fortunate factors, there was decisive action. African governments instituted early and far-reaching measures against the disease — even to great economic cost.
My home country, Kenya, reported its first case of Covid-19 on Friday March 13. Two days later on March 15 when the caseload was up to three (and no deaths yet), the government announced that all schools would be closed, all public and private sector workers sent home, an immediate ban on social gatherings, no weddings, no church services, no nothing. Air travel restricted only to returning Kenyan citizens or foreigners with residence permits. It was overnight.
As of September 8, Kenyan schools still remain closed. A nighttime curfew has only been partially eased, and mask-wearing has been mandatory in public spaces since April, and remains so. Many other African governments executed early lockdowns and far-reaching restrictions, as Western countries dithered.
Perhaps it is a familiarity with crisis that made the general population largely follow through with the measures, or a realization that if COVID-19 was overwhelming countries that were far better resourced, then prevention would literally be the only cure in Africa. In South Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda and many other countries, emergency measures came in swiftly, and were largely followed.
But everything has not been rosy. Deaths and injuries resulting from heavy-handed actions of state security personnel enforcing curfews and other measures have been reported in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere.
At the time this story was pitched, the police in Kenya had killed more people than the Coronavirus. By June 1, the police had killed 95 people in Kenya – more than what was reported in 2018, and more than half of what was reported last year, according to Missing Voices KE. Police impunity did not begin with Covid-19, although the pandemic created a crisis moment which gave the authorities an opportunity – or excuse – to expand state power.
As of September 8, although there is a likelihood that some cases may have been missed, Africa accounted for 4.7 percent of global cases of COVID-19 and 3.5 percent of deaths, making it the least-affected continent globally.
You might think that this would make me feel some relief, but I only feel a deep grief at the reports of disproportionate deaths of Black people in the U.S., the U.K., Brazil and elsewhere. Take the U.S. for example. By mid-August, data from the APM Research Lab showed that compared to white Americans, the latest U.S. age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 3.6 times as high, Indigenous people is 3.4 times as high, and Latinos is 3.2 times as high.
There is no joy to be had when Africa is not the epicenter of an infectious disease, and yet people who look like me continue to be the hardest hit.
The racist logic that cruelly asks why Africans are not dying from COVID-19 at the same rates as in the west, is the same racist logic that allows for Black people in the U.S. and elsewhere to die at such disproportionately higher rates from the disease without anyone asking questions.
This is systemic racism at a global level and it must be stopped. All Black Lives Matter.