(Plain Talk, 18 June 2021)
Guest column by Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Like any African who grew up with a TV, I’ve always been exposed to Western perceptions of Africa. Living in a postcolonial African education system that relies heavily on Western literature, one becomes intimately aware of how the world sees Africa. Still, I have always bristled against what is now famously called ‘The single-story,’ which presents Africa as a one-dimensional scene of tragic suffering and endless despair. Coverage of COVID-19 in Africa, despite the continent’s relatively low infection rates, is disproportionately grim and macabre compared to the rest of the world.
Last November, the Times (11/27/20) published a lengthy article about efforts in East Asia to fight COVID. Headlined “They Beat Back the Virus (Again and Again),” it focused on three places (Hong Kong, Korea and Japan), outlining long histories of policy implementation and strategic tweaking by their health officials to combat wave after wave of the coronavirus.
‘Where the dead are not counted.’
In contrast, a New York Times article (1/2/21) by West Africa bureau chief Ruth Maclean, headlined “A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted,” compared the death toll of all 54 African nations to France, and concluded that because the former has fewer official deaths than the latter, their calculations (all 54 of them) couldn’t possibly be correct. The subtitle teased us with a possible explanation: “That doesn’t mean people aren’t dying from the virus.”
The first expert whose guidance is sought to make sense of Africa’s COVID response is a professor at New York University. The next expert is a director of Doctors without Borders. Though his voice might be the article’s only hint at the notion that good African policies possibly reduced the spread of COVID, Maclean quickly discards his input for more exciting news out of England about secret outbreaks in Sudan. The next expert is a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose “toes curl” when anybody implies “Africa has been spared.”
While the article is chock full of people talking about Africans, there are only three sources from Africa and Africa featured in the article, all from Lagos, Nigeria.
Caskets and corpses
The first photo in the African article is a row of stacked caskets captured in the dimly lit store. The next photo is of a corpse wrapped in plastic in Mogadishu, Somalia. The next photo is of a man in Lagos standing in front of a funeral home. While thousands of people had died from COVID in East Asia, the photos in the article about Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong feature zero corpses or caskets.
The first article was co-written by Mike Ives, Tiffany May and Mikoko Inoue, reporters who appear to be residents if not natives of Hong Kong and Japan, with additional reporting from Youmi Kim, based in South Korea. That’s four reporters covering three locations, in contrast to one reporter purporting to cover 54.
The experts included local academics, who were not asked to comment on the COVID strategies of every country in Asia, but were allowed to express nuanced reflections on their local crises.
The officials interviewed were presumed to have the correct data. There were no Western universities quoted, no Orientalists consulted. The people of Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, were treated as distinct populations who could speak well enough for themselves.
Carrying on a tradition of Western inquiry spanning centuries, the Times‘ Maclean does not appear to expect to encounter locals who have solutions or have really thought about their predicament. They aren’t even given the chance to explain that Nigeria is not Sudan is not Somalia is not… The article about Africa mentions only four of the 54 countries, and none of these four is the reporter’s residence.
An Africa without leaders
Like countless others in Western media, Maclean’s article took place in an Africa without leaders, without public health officials or activists. It’s set in a vacuum of knowledge and strategy. No epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, no academics, no local journalists or medical associations were quoted—just a vast maw of African horror.
Western media have a well-documented skew towards negative coverage when discussing Africa. One study found that in a 40-year period of reporting on African issues, an average of 73% of New York Times articles provided decidedly negative images. This is not without consequence because the Times is very influential.
There is at least one industry invested in the repeated emphasis of disaster in Africa, and moreover in the idea of Africans being ill-prepared and in need of rescuing. There are currently at least 2,461 NGOs in Africa, and there’s money to be made and soft power to be expanded.
In its insistence on portraying Africa as a place of failure and no leadership, the New York Times participates in the White Saviour Industrial complex, the NGO pyramid scheme, and any other manner of systems that keep nations from the Global North in positions of dominance. The only information about Africa that is worthwhile must come from foreign sources. Africans are not expected to reflect on their crises or learn from their past experiences.
A wealth of public health knowledge
There is a decided refusal to acknowledge the actions of nations like my native Botswana, which, through strict lockdown measures instituted as early as February 2020, managed to keep COVID deaths to 45 by January 2021. This, in a nation once reported having the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate per capita.
It should be obvious that the very prevalence of pandemics and disease mean that many African nations were extremely cautious and quite aware of the fragility of healthcare systems in general and often able to convince citizens to take COVID seriously much faster. There is a wealth of public health knowledge the continent has to offer. It astounds me that so few Western authors were able to make this connection.
Rather than acknowledge such a reality, the Ruth Macleans of the world prefer to devote precious column space to the idea that Africans can’t count. It appears that even as the US healthcare system is brought to its knees and exposed as a hollowed-out shell of its former self, the country’s media need a world where Africa can produce no solutions, can give no knowledge and is devoid of the power to positively influence the trajectory of the world. It appears the maintainers of these structures would rather die superior than live as equals.
The entire article can be found here.
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