BIEA Annual Lecture: Africa and the global outbreak narrative

By: Joëlle Batour and Ed Burnett

Live tweeting by Lewis Mwaura

On November 18th, the British Institute In Eastern Africa (BIEA) held their annual lecture, hosting Professor Simukai Chigudu as he gave a compelling talk on the global outbreak narrative surrounding epidemics, pandemics and the positioning of Africa in light of COVID-19. The event was chaired by Professor Dame Henrietta Moore FBA, the current director at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity and president of the BIEA. Discussions were led by Professor Ambreena Manji, professor of Land Law and Development and co-founder of the Law and Global Justice Centre at Cardiff University and the former director of the BIEA.

Professor Simukai Chigudu is an Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of St Anthony’s College. He has worked across several different disciplines, most notably in global public health and in African politics and history. He also helped found the Oxford branch of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement whilst a graduate student, campaigning to remove the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes currently displayed in front of Oriel College. Professor Chigudu has written for and been interviewed in a wide array of publications, including the Guardian, the New Statesman, the British Medical Journal, and the South African radio station 702. His book ‘The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwewas released in January 2020.

Opening with an anecdote of Guinea’s first Ebola case, Professor Chigudu recalled how Western media often claimed the ‘consumption of bushmeat’ or ‘particular religious and burial practices’ to be explanations for the Ebola outbreak, blatantly ignoring issues surrounding lack of funding and mistrust between the public and their government. Noting how these claims are a product of the global outbreak narrative, Chigudu explained how the importance of this narrative cannot be undermined: It restructures our economies, differs people’s perceptions of others and shapes public understanding of how disease work. Chigudu concludes that because of this almost omnipotent nature of the outbreak narrative, it is crucial that we see its change. Science, like countless other disciplines remain tied to colonial history and through uniting under interdisciplinary bodies, actively decolonising our research and prioritising community over capital, we will be able to progress forward.

Identifying the positions of Africa and the Global North within the outbreak narrative, Chigudu highlighted how it labels Africa to be either the primordial origin of disease or its ultimate destination. He questioned why the suffering of disease is inconceivable in one place yet inevitable in another? Africa has been illustrated as a continent that is always at risk of disease and always in need of healing, whereas the Western world is posed as the foil to this. Following the 2001 Anthrax attacks and the Bush presidency’s decision to deem bioterrorism equal to other national security threats, the narrative surrounding emerging diseases changed. Chigudu asserts that this narrative has become inseparable from the USA and capitalist military-industrial complexes as emerging diseases are no longer bound to science, but also a multi-billion business.

However, Chigudu aptly noted that the way COVID-19 has spread undermines the outbreak narrative which brands Africa to be ‘doomed’. The continent counts for 17% of the world population but only 3.5% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Giving possible explanations of uneven population densities, government choices and young populations with possible pre-existing immunities, Chigudu remained certain that this does not mean that African governments must not remain ready. Chances of spikes are still possible, yet it is clear that the current narrative glosses over the diverse nature of the realities. Through identifying ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, the outbreak narrative gives an universal template for understanding interactions between humans and the microbial world, however things are far more complex than this. In discussions led by Professor Manji, Chigudu stressed the caution we must take when considering actions of ‘philanthro-capitalism’. He argued that it is important to be wary of organisations that are embedded in the ‘Silicon Valley imaginary’ (such as the ‘Gates and Melinda Foundation’), stating that organisations which valorise innovation and technology often avoid any local people having a stake of representation.

In all of this, Professor Chigudu made it very clear that the global outbreak narrative needs to change. Citing the work of Priscilla Wald, who claims that we should revive the outbreak narrative within the world of social justice, Chigudu asks if we can go even further. Stating how we must reflect on our past in order to move forward, Chigudu explained how germ theory emerged from the idea that microbes and humans were at war when in reality, there is no war to win. Bacteria constantly evolves through real complex processes of horizontal transmission and evolution (8% of human DNA is virus) and therefore, we must evolve with it. Thus, he argued that we must remove the narrative from a purely science domain and instead, reshape it within interdisciplinary bodies. At current, outbreak history shares a pathological connection to colonialism and therefore, we cannot view it through the single lens of science. Concluding that we cannot see epidemics and pandemics through a single ontology, Chigudu highlights how in a world where humans feel most separated, it is crucial for us to come together across disciplines in order to move forward and reimagine the global outbreak narrative.

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