Africa is not your guinea pig

Photo courtesy Alexis Hamilton

It didn’t take long during this COVID-19 crisis for colonial racism to jump out in plain sight. Last week, two French doctors angered many when they suggested that the study of the novel coronavirus should continue in Africa.

While discussing finding a cure for the virus, head of the intensive care unit at Cochin Hospital in Paris, France, Jean-Paul Mira asked about potentially testing in Africa. 

“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care,” asked Mira. “A bit like how it is done in AIDS. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and they do not protect themselves.”

Mira was on live television with Camille Locht who is the research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research who quickly agreed.

“You are right. We are actually thinking of a parallel study in Africa to use with the same kind of approach with BCG placebos,” said Locht in reference to their use of vaccinations against tuberculosis.

It’s unsettling to hear two highly respected doctors, one who is a director of one of the world’s best research institutions in the health sector, discuss putting human lives at risk. If that’s not enough, the discussion involved putting those human lives at risk without even so much of considering to ask for consent.

What’s extremely off-putting about what was said is the tone and the delivery. This normalization of colonial attitudes and the dehumanization of Africans and other ethnic groups is jarring, to say the least.

The World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus condemned Mira and Locht’s remarks.

“It was a disgrace to hear during the 21st Century, to hear from scientists, that kind of remark. We condemn this in the strongest terms possible, and we assure you that this will not happen,” said Ghebreyesus. 

While Mira and Locht have since apologized, these comments have shed light on a frame of mind that has been apparent throughout history. For centuries, Africans have been exploited for the sake of science and so-called cures through patriarchy and white supremacy.

There are many instances throughout history that display the cruel treatment of Africans.

Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie or Sara) was a woman from South Africa who was the subject of entertainment due to her assets and later of French medical and scientific research in the 1800s. After she died, her remains were on display in a Paris museum until the mid-1970s and were not sent back to her home country and buried until 2002. 

France created a nuclear bomb-testing campaign in the 1960s which would take place in Algeria. Even after Algeria gained its independence in 1962, France would continue testing until 1966. Decades after the policy, the French are taking little accountability of the implications while Algerians are struggling to receive compensation.

In 1996, the cerebrospinal meningitis epidemic occurred in Nigeria affecting many of the nation’s children. Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, enlisted 200 children for research on their test drug Trovan. 

The company never acquired ethical clearance for the study or gained informed consent from the participants. The participants had no idea that it was an experimental drug and Pfizer left the country after the study even though the outbreak was still ongoing.

Countries, like France and the United States, capitalize on Africans due to their vulnerability. The desperation, lack of education and finance in lesser developed areas makes them an easy target. 

It is hard enough that a lot of the nations in Africa do not have access to testing or treatment for the virus, but to exploit that for the sake of research is not anyone, but those nations’ decisions. Now is the time for us to allow these nations to decide what is suitable for them in this pandemic.