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Africa and the Global Outbreak Narrative
18 November 2020, 20:00 EAT - 22:00 EAT
For the historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg, epidemics have a ‘dramaturgical character’. What he meant is that epidemics are rendered intelligible as social phenomena through stories or narratives that follow a familiar pattern. The COVID-19 ‘outbreak narrative’ begins in the wet markets of Wuhan. From here, the drama intensifies as the virus spreads through the circuits of global modernity – economy, trade, finance and tourism – becoming an international security threat as well as a parable about the dangers of our interconnected world. The narrative, of course, is never fully coherent. It elicits contradictory reactions about the obsolescence and tenacity of borders, the threat and benevolence of strangers, the failures and redemptive potential of medical science. But this is part of the outbreak narrative’s potency in setting the terms of social dialogue and political debate. Africa, in the COVID-19 outbreak narrative, has been placed as the virus’s final frontier where, we have been repeatedly assured, it will yield untold damage. Numerous headlines by journalists, policymakers, and scientists alike have warned that the virus is a ‘ticking time bomb’ on a continent ‘woefully ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19’. Legitimate concerns about weak health systems, densely populated urban centres, and a history of devastating epidemics mingle with racist ideas about the primordial nature of African poverty and about the inability of African peoples and governments to respond with ingenuity to a crisis. In this lecture, I take the contrasting the horror of COVID-19 in the Global North with its presumed trajectory in Africa as an entry point to consider the political ramifications of the global outbreak narrative.
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