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Racist stereotypes have shaped ‘Western’ coverage of COVID-19 in Africa 

  • Opinion

By SJ Armstrong, MA Postcolonialism Studies

‘There will be bodies in the streets.’

Bill Gates’ dire premonitions about Africa’s response to the impending pandemic was dystopian- mass graves, collapsing economies, political disarray. His warnings of failed states and disrepair have come to fruition this year, but not in Africa.

More than 200,000 bodies have been buried in the United States alone. Coronavirus has crippled the economies of Western Europe, plunging us back into lockdown as case figures soar once again.

In this same period, the entirety of the African continent can count only 37,000 deaths. These account for 3.3% of total global casualties, in the home of 17% of the world population.

‘The continent [took] bold, aggressive and courageous steps in locking down their economies very early on,’ Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, told the Telegraph. ‘Countries went into a state of emergency or disaster when they had only four to six recorded cases. I think people tend to forget about that.’

Governments acted swiftly, with outstanding success in countries including Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and more. This success has been reported in the ‘West’ as puzzling, confounding, even as inexplicable to our ‘advanced’ and struggling nations. 

Dr Nkengasong joined many other prominent Africans in outspoken denouncement of the ‘Western’ media’s portrayal of the crisis in the continent. He agreed that ‘[The projections] were embedded in a shallow understanding of the continent, and a rush to make headlines.’

‘It was not based on science. I don’t think the assumptions were solid. I think they were based on stereotypes… Modelling is only as good as the assumption put into it.’

These stereotypes were born of the colonial narratives that haunt Africa. Racist notions of ubiquitous underdevelopment across the continent led to assertions like that published by the BBC: ‘Coronavirus in Africa: Could poverty explain mystery of low death rate?’ 

The since-renamed article explores the consequences of coronavirus in Africa, where the population lives, according to the writer Andrew Harding, in ‘crowded townships [with] poor hygiene… where large families often share a single room.’ 

When writers only understand Africa within frameworks defined by degrading colonial discourses, this antiquated altruism and derision is predictable.

These esteemed media outlets were, it seems, disinclined to pay African reporters to cover African stories.

Nigerian journalist Edwin Okolo, whose work has featured in the New York Times and African Arguments, said that ‘prestigious news outlets completely failed Africa in their coverage of the pandemic.’

Valuable on-the-ground reporting was substituted by patronising incredulity. Okolo stressed that this stems from the consistent lack of opportunities being given to African writers and journalists who have the experience and context necessary to tell a nuanced story.

‘We have had to fight to tell our own stories on their platforms,’ Okolo noted.

Joyline Maenzanise, a journalist based in Zimbabwe, was equally outraged by the angle taken by reporters in the Global North. ‘It has become clear that the ‘West’ can’t fathom – or accept – how we have not lived up to its colonialist perception of Africa as an underdeveloped continent riddled with poverty, starvation and malfunctioning systems.’

‘You would think,’ they remarked, ‘[this] was raised out of a genuine concern about the welfare of people living in Africa. No!’

Indeed, in these takes, astonishment seems more consistent than compassion. As Ghana is used as the case study for effective track and trace and Senegal introduces $1 coronavirus tests, African scientists are playing leading roles in pandemic innovation. 

Nonetheless, prestigious outlets in the Global North continue to publish perplexed articles, asserting that nobody can understand how the continent has succeeded to such a degree.

‘It’s unsurprising,’ said Okolo, ‘…and exhausting.’

Photo Credit: Martin Sanchez, Unsplash.

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