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Africa Is Not Your Hottentot Continent
Imagine if someone walked into your house, pinned you down, ripped all of the copper piping and electrical circuitry out of the walls, and then took your most valued possessions, and then a few weeks later, their son comes in and says that they’ve chosen your house as the perfect testing ground for a new technology because it is so dilapidated? You would likely be incensed at the audacity.
That is essentially what two French doctors did when they suggested tested a modified tuberculosis vaccine in Africa, in an attempt to combat and control COVID-19. Testing a drug that could help literally billions is not the issue, their reason for the choice of continent is. They said that Africa is a good choice due to its lack of infrastructure, and protective measures to fight COVID-19. When I first heard this, I thought that the doctors were just being oblivious, but when I read the quote, this was deliberate racism and a lack of respect for human life.
Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Parisian Cochin Hospital, said ,“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?…A bit like as it is done elsewhere for some studies on AIDS. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”
So the doctor not only clumped an entire continent of 54 countries into one group, but he compared the testing to that done during the AIDS crisis, which already had problematic testing procedures. Singling out sex workers as the cause instead of also thinking of the patrons of those sex workers demonizes them. Also, is “If I can be provocative”, a more sophisticated version of, “If I can play devil’s advocate”? After worldwide condemnation, Dr. Mira apologized for what he said, but only to say that he was sorry if people were hurt by his words, not for saying something so callous and cruel in the first place.
We love to pretend that grotesque racism like this is cordoned off to the ignorant and uneducated. The scientific and medical fields have been rife with it for hundreds of years. Where do we think the ignorant get their ideas, after all? Saartjie Baartman’s plight is a prime example of Europeans dehumanizing African people in the name of “science”. Both Europeans and Americans have used pseudoscience to rationalize the “need” to maintain mandatory servitude for descendants of Africa. Gynecology came about as a medical field through the blood and torture of enslaved black women. The Tuskegee Experiment kept Black men untreated for syphilis “for research”. Even today, I have had modern medical students tell me that my skin is thicker than white people’s skin, that I have an extra muscle tendon in my legs that make me more agile, that I am more resistant to pain medicines which is why I don’t need them. None of these things have ever been true, but plenty of people still believe them, as the numbers of African American cases and deaths from COVID-19 are on the rise, because physicians are ignoring African Americans.
While it may be true that some countries in Africa lack vital infrastructure, we can simply look at the history of the country and learn that that instability was due to European colonialism. Africa was the birth of civilization. That is not hyperbole. The first humans were born in Africa, and as they evolved and traveled, they also developed the technologies to stay sedentary if they willed it. Universities are thanks to an African woman. Timbuktu was the Oxford/Yale of the ancient world. The art of Medicine as a science was developed in Africa. To then discuss Africa as if it never had a strong foothold in the world is an insult. Billions of dollars worth of natural resources stream out of Africa on a daily basis, as it has been for years, yet westerners still have a “dark continent” mentality, ignoring that their own greed is why some countries in Africa lack so much.
That a French doctor would make such an egregious proposal is telling, especially since France was one of the main perpetrators of violent colonialism on the continent. The French speaking African countries didn’t just pick up the language because they thought it was pretty. Ignoring that history is apropos, though. Like the United States, France likes to think of itself as an egalitarian country where everyone is equal. It says it right in the motto: “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity/Brotherhood. Theoretically, everyone is equal in France, just like America. Realistically, the aim for “equal” means “be more white male”, just like in America. The laws that French provinces have put forth in the name of “equality” suppress the rights and expressions of people who aren’t “traditionally” French. Bans on crosses and Stars of David, or hijabs and burkinis, help nothing. Equality and civility are not made by making everyone look and act the same. They are attained by learning about the things that make us different and accepting those things. So long as my beliefs are not infringing on your right to live, there is no need for judgment. Dr. Mira’s comments about Africa show that France has not done much to teach the history of why some countries of Africa are the way they are, just like America doesn’t teach about why impoverished Black neighborhoods are so impoverished. This is still no excuse to treat poor people, specifically African people, like lab animals. There cannot and will not be another Hottentot Venus.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes the Chronicles of Nonsense segment for the Almost Tuesday show on WAYO-FM 104.3, and regularly posts and writes on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon.Additionally , Chris is a Food Writer for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com
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