It is regrettable but unfortunately true that Africa seems to be a synonym for a lot of life’s undesirables. The continent has been described along the lines of diseases, poverty, war, famine, corruption etc. From time immoral, right down to the colonial era, the continent has largely been presented as either the forbidden land or the land of the heathen. Interestingly, until Africans started clamouring for freedom and independence, most of these stories were written by its oppressors. But we all know that, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Before the Europeans arrived in Africa, Africa had vibrant economic, social and political structures, which were conveniently dismantled for the benefit of the colonisers. But they won’t tell you that.
But as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage societies and economies, to say that the world is desperate for an answer would be an understatement. It goes without saying that the world would give up one of the planets in the galaxy for a cure, or even a vaccine. Key workers including nurses, drivers, undertakers etc have been working flat out to keep the world running. But in the quiet and unheralded dungeons of laboratories all over the world, scientists, lab technicians, pharmacist and even your backdoor sorcerer are working hard to get a resolution to this problem.
Some may say that it is out of such desperation that 2 prominent French doctors uttered the immoral and immortal suggestion, that Africa should be the FIRST place to test the vaccine for Covid-19. How crass, how derogatory and downright senseless. It is unquestionable that vaccines are responsible for many global health successes, such as the eradication of smallpox and significant reductions in other serious infections like polio and measles. Even so, vaccinations have also long been the subject of various ethical controversies and debates around vaccine regulation, development, and use. They generally revolve around mandates, research and testing, informed consent, and access disparities. There is no doubt, that trial runs of vaccines are central to the successes. Nevertheless, it is the ethical considerations that provide the safeguards against the risk of abuse; in the name of beneficence.
But as we know, even to protect the greatest number of people, vaccines may sometimes infringe upon individual autonomy and liberty. Some people object because of contraindications, philosophies or religious beliefs. It is not surprising therefore, that some governments use mandates to counter individuals’’ right to refuse vaccines. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal government in USA; in a bid to eradicate measles made vaccination a first school entry requirement; thereby circumventing the ability to refuse vaccination. This may be all well and good. But it is the testing side of things that has got the whole continent in an uproar; thanks to 2 French bigots experiencing withdrawal symptoms of colonialism.
In order to conduct a vaccine test, you need to consider vaccine development, the study design, population, and trial location alongside a control group; as safeguards. It also means that experts from scientific and social disciplines, including public health, epidemiology, immunology, statistics, and from pharmaceutical companies; are involved; with motives and interests declared. In addition, provision should be made fore adequate preventive option, especially when such vaccines could potentially prevent a serious, untreatable or fatal infection.
Added to the conundrum is the issue of consent. In Mali, the participants in a malaria vaccine trial did not understand the concept of withdrawal from the study, the side effects from the vaccine, and even the difference between a research study and therapy. These and many other issues bring the question of consent into sharp focus and the suggestion to trial the Covid -19 vaccine FIRST in Africa, so nauseatingly insulting. By all standards, this was a blatant declaration that Africa was to be used as a guinea pig, to alleviate the world’s suffering. You wonder why not China, where it all originated? Why not China who are suppressing their population growth? Why not the developed world, where the death toll is relatively high to date? That is what many people are asking.
There has been a lot of panic, hysteria and all sorts of worst-case scenarios predicted for the African continent. This is rightly so, from a risk assessment perspective. The preponderance and death toll from Covid-19 has been significantly high in the developed world; where it all started. In comparison, Africa is relatively “unscathed “and I use that term loosely. The worry for Africa as a continent, is based on the lack of medical facilities to deal with such a pandemic should it take a life of its own. The fear is not based on the number of cases of infection or deaths. What generates the fear is the fact that African politicians have never prioritised healthcare. They never fail to remind their citizens about this; especially when they fall ill and unashamedly seek medical attention abroad; for even the slightest headache.
It is this dire strait of affairs that puts the African continent and other underdeveloped nations at high risk. It is not because of the number of deaths to date, but the ill preparedness and non availability of facilities to deal with the pandemic that is causing the anxiety. If the continent is to stand any chance of saving its people, it will have to be the preventive measures of social distancing, contact tracing and “lockdowns” as the best “vaccine” for now. Its no wonder that while lockdown in the developed world has been meted out by persuasion and information dissemination, up north of the Limpopo and south of the Sahara, the measures have been drastic and downright brutal. The term, lockdown and human rights in these parts have unsurprisingly been a contradiction in terms. How do you facilitate a lockdown when your people don’t have drinking water, and you brutalise them for seeking a basic human fundamental right; TO DRINK? Oh dear.
The 2 French doctors have since apologised for their poor judgement and what they would want you and me to believe was a lapsus lingua. At face value, they were stating the obvious about vaccines; the need to test them. Vaccines tests naturally require a wide sample for testing; meaning that a sizeable number of participants ranging along age, race, geographical/regional and many other variables is required to withstand the scrutiny of research methods. It is one thing to suggest participation of Africans, but that Africa should be the FIRST place to do so is what make it repugnant. The operative word “FIRST”, and its connotation evokes nothing other than an arrogant display of racial superiority. Some people could be tempted to take a toothcomb to the records of these 2 doctors, with special interest in the outcomes of patients with darker complexions they may have seen in the past. Let us face it, with such an opinion about Africa as a guinea pig, I would not wish to be their patient; even if my life depended on it.
I am looking at the top of my arm. I see 3 scars perfectly etched into my skin. I now recall those days in primary school, when that green van turned up, with a man in a long white coat asked for my outstretched arm. Like a flash, a gun looking machine made contact. A scratch they called it. I wonder what was in those “MARKLATE”. Guinea pig? Oh dear
It’s easy to dismiss these 2 doctors as individuals, but from a wider angle, it manifests the notion that colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. Who can imagine that even in the 21st century, France continues to collect rents from its former colonies; as if it’s payment for the “privilege” of colonising them? Is it surprising then, that Senegal and DR Congo are rumoured to have accepted vaccine trials on their people?
The dilemma that Africans and their leaders will face is whether to accept the vaccine and its attendant “sweeteners”. One way or the other, there will be aid and loan agreements tied into this. The issue has been controversial and abhorrent to say the least. From a beneficence point of view, and in the absence of good medical facilities, the continent stands to gain from any successful trials and eventual treatment. The question is, should Africa be the FIRST for those tests? Don’t answer that, because the World Health Organisation has strongly condemned this imperial arrogance.
Whatever good intentions have been lost in translation. Many Africans will be hoping that the lure of brown envelopes, aid and loan packages will not do the trick. If the vaccine is trailed and deemed safe elsewhere, any resistance to do so in Africa may likely diminish. For all we know, this vaccine issue may just turn out to be the making or breaking of certain leaders in Africa. If African leaders are going to succumb to accepting this, it will be imperative to ensure that all ethical, cultural, scientific, legal and moral considerations have been addressed, prior to doing so. Sometimes, people do prefer to be kings in hell than slaves in heaven.
Please don’t forget to turn the lights out before you leave the room; and wash your hands.