In the last decade, there have been more interactions between African countries and China, with several Chinese workers, African business people and students going back and forth. However, when COVID-19 was first identified in China in late 2019, this novel virus seemed like a problem far from the African continent. This interaction seemed to continue unquestioned. Indeed, when I travelled from South Africa to Uganda for a Christmas holiday, via Kenya, I did not experience any unusual COVID-19 related check-ups or restrictions.
While the spread of the virus dominated the mainstream media, with people regularly flying in and out of the African continent, travelling life seemed to continue unrestricted. Indeed, in mid-February, I travelled to the UK for a seven-day trip and returned to South Africa without experiencing any COVID-19 related restrictions. Therefore, I relied on this experience to plan and look forward to my next trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone in mid-March, later cancelled.
During this time, some people suggested that the virus would reach the African continent through (white) travellers returning from Asian and European hotspots. Certainly, Africa recorded the first COVID-19 case on 14 February via Egypt. On 27 February, Nigeria announced their first case, an Italian citizen. On 5 March, South Africa announced their first case, a citizen returning from Italy. While the Ministry of Health did not mention race in their announcement, some people concluded that the person was white, asking, ‘who else travels to Italy at this time of the year?’
Racialisation and South Africa
As a black Ugandan scholar working in South Africa where everything is racialised, such emerging narratives did not surprise me. However, residing in a white-dominated suburb in Johannesburg, I watched such developments of the racialisation of COVID-19, with keen interest. I wanted to see whether the response to COVID-19 risk, ranging from government to community-based organisations involved a racial interpretation. Would responses utilise the notion of race to communicate and mitigate this risk? I wondered: if this process involved categorising or differentiating response based on race, how would black South Africans experience this racialisation of the pandemic? How would this experience compare with other African countries?
On 15 March, the government of South Africa declared a national state of emergency, announcing measures including travel restrictions and school closures. However, the narrative that white people were more vulnerable to the virus seemed to persist in South Africa and beyond. This stubborn misleading narrative seemed to feed on the earlier misinformation that blacks were immune to the virus, reinforced by the experience of one Cameroonian student in China.
In the week leading to the South African lockdown, I met with some (East African) friends to exchange notes on how to survive the lockdown. As we shared concerns and fears, one paused and said, ‘thank God this virus started in China. If it had started in Africa, imagine the stigma, we [Africans] would be experiencing now.’ I sympathised with this conclusion because I have experienced such stigma first hand due to past epidemics, including Ebola. During lockdown in South Africa, I observed African countries rushing to minimise the spreading of COVID-19, via several responses. I also noticed the negative Western media coverage of the African continent, portraying the continent as helpless. The emerging publications were/are simplified and sensationalised, many missing African voices and perspectives. The lack of in-depth and nuanced reporting by the African media exacerbated the situation.
I am compiling and analysing such observations as part of collaborative research entitled, ‘COVID-19 and Racialised Risk Narratives in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya’. The project of five scholars, four who are based on the continent, are exploring how COVID-19 risk and prevention narratives are racialised. We examine media, social media, government policy, local radio, to explore if the racialised understanding and communication of the risk of infection appears, and the consequent impact.
Our project attempts to chart a different path, challenging the Eurocentric ways of researching Africa, undermining local knowledge, expertise and experiences. As an African Studies scholar, I believe collaborative research should aim at moving back the simplified and sensationalised narrative. It should also challenge hierarchies by repositioning core researchers, with African based scholars, replacing or working closely with global North researchers. At the moment, global North researchers are unable to travel to the continent to research the pandemic. Scholars based on the continent are taking a critical position in collaborative research projects. Thus, the situation presents an opportunity to ensure local views take front and centre in the debate about the pandemic on the African continent.