During a live television debate last week, two French health officials, Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht, suggested the Covid-19 trials, which were set to be launched in Europe and Australia, be tested first in Africa.
Mira, the head of the intensive care unit at Cochin Hospital in Paris, said:
”It may be provocative. Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?”
Locht, the research director at France’s national health institute, agreed with his colleague:
”You are right. And by the way, we are thinking of in parallel about a study in Africa using this same approach.”
The pair of doctors were condemned by many, including Olivier Faure, of France’s Socialist Party, who said, “Africa is not the laboratory of Europe. Africans are not rats!” His sentiments were echoed by African footballing legends Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o. Drogba stated again that Africa was not a testing lab and denounced the demeaning and racist quality of the doctors’ suggestion. Eto’o called the pair “murderers.”
It is totally inconceivable we keep on cautioning this.— Didier Drogba (@didierdrogba) April 2, 2020
Africa isn’t a testing lab.
I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racists words.
Helps us save Africa with the current ongoing Covid 19 and flatten the curve. pic.twitter.com/41GIpXaIYv
Mira apologized for his comments, saying he wanted an African country to be part of the trials along with England and Australia, rather than being ground-zero for the trials:
”It seemed interesting to me that in addition to France and Australia, an African country could participate in this study which I had never heard of before hearing about it on the show.”
Locht’s employer, Inserm, went the opposite route as Mira, and instead claimed their employee’s statements were distorted, calling the uproar about the situation fake news:
”A distorted video, taken from an interview on LCI with one of our researchers about a study on the potential use of the BCG vaccine against Covid-19, is now the subject of erroneous interpretation.”
His intent, they said, was to make sure Africa wasn’t excluded or forgotten from the research because the virus is a global problem.
Inserm’s line of defense is immediately sabotaged by the fact the statement Locht agreed with compared Africans to prostitutes, who “are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves.” His agreement with Mira came after Mira had questioned if the trials would work in England and Australia because the healthcare workers in those two countries had more access to equipment to protect them from the virus. What appealed to the two in that moment wasn’t any sign of solidarity, but the opportunity Africa presented for their experiments as a vulnerable continent. Mira knew the idea would be provocative and Locht happily jumped onto the boat with him.
The suggestion by the two doctors wasn’t entirely surprising, the history of European countries seeing Africa as a testing ground as well as a continent of natural and human resources to be stolen and exploited is a very long one that has filled many books. France is a prominent character in that colonial history, so there is no shock to see even doctors express those dehumanizing sentiments. Their careers might be geared toward saving lives, but that only applies to those lives they see as valuable, which hasn’t often included Africans who are dismissed as sub-human. As test subjects.
What stands out about the discussion between the two doctors is how casual the entire thing was. That such a statement about Africans and comparison to prostitutes — which itself is also dehumanizing considering that prostitutes are also humans who have the same inherent dignity as anyone else — was made so carelessly as if it was such an inconsequential idea. The suggestion, the carelessness of it, and the comfort that those two doctors felt in saying such a thing on television, is at least evidence of how deep those beliefs of the sub-human nature of Africans are.
The carelessness of the suggestion reminded me of an answer that French President Emmanuel Macron gave to a Cote d’Ivoire journalist in 2017 who asked him why there was no Marshall Plan for Africa. The Marshall Plan was a recovery program that provided aid to European countries after World War II. Macron said:
“The challenge of Africa is completely different, it is much deeper. It is civilizational today. Failing states, complex democratic transitions, the demographic transition. One of the essential challenges of Africa ... is that in some countries today seven or eight children [are] born to each woman.”
It was an infuriating answer from the president of what had been an empire that pillaged and ruled parts of Africa 1830 until 1960, and has still continued to profit from the continent after the independence of the last French colony. Rather than taking ownership of the abuse that Africa has suffered from France, and the struggles that have existed because of that abuse, he pivoted to blaming the problems on a supposed civilizational and moral failing of Africans. All while pretending he was speaking in solidarity.
In Macron’s case, France gets to devastate African countries, and then blames them for not recovering from that devastation quickly enough, which emphasizes the belief that Africans are inherently inferior than their Western counterparts. And for the doctors, that sub-human idea of Africans provides perfect cover to treat the country like prostitutes to be tested on, while pretending their efforts are actually a compassionate attempt to include Africa in the fight against the virus.
All of this makes the denouncement of the two doctors necessary but also reasonably insufficient. The two of them have been roundly shamed for such a vile idea, but what they said is just a natural and careless consequence of a long history and political project that has dehumanized Africans for a very long time. Just as it wasn’t surprising to see two French doctors talk in such a demeaning way about Africans, and Macron take a similar stance years ago, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out months from now that these trials, using Africans as test subjects before it’s moved to Europeans and Australians, actually happened away from media scrutiny. That would just be a continuation of the standard order of business for Africa’s relationship with Western countries.