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06.04.2020 Opinion

Social mania? How scandals gone viral upend reality in the age of COVID-19

By Kwaku Adomako
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While people share thoughts on Dr. Jean-Paul Mira’s suggestion to test a vaccine’s effectiveness on COVID-19 in Africa, we need to take a step back and think about how quickly reality shifts as people online seek redress for foreign ‘experts’ treating Africa like a ‘laboratory’.

Tens of thousands of people on social media are viewing, circulating and commenting on some version of this clip, originally broadcasted by La Chaine Info (LCI) 1 April 2020. The clip discusses the use of Bacillus Calmette–Guerin (BCG), an already widely circulated tuberculosis vaccine, as a potential remedy for COVID-19. But Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of Medical Resuscitation Services of the Paris-based Cochin Hospital, came under fire after saying:

"If I could be provocative, should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation (services), just like we do …for certain studies on AIDS, where, with (female) prostitutes, we try things because we know they are highly exposed, and they don’t protect themselves? What do you think about it?"

Dr. Camille Locht, Director of Research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) responded, "Well you’re right, we are in the process of thinking of a concurrent study in Africa actually, to take the same type of approach with the BCG…"

This can easily elicit strong reactions, whether towards neocolonialists, foreign ‘experts,’ or even voluntourists. It leaves the familiar stench of arrogance coming often from ‘the West’ and endured by many from the Continent. We see this indignation amid scores of retweets of ‘#africaisnotalaboratory’ in this ensuing firestorm.

One of the reasons I think that this upsets so many people is that Dr. Mira discussed testing the BCG vaccine in Africa, as though Africa were, as Prof. Justin Williams wrote in his PhD thesis, “a singular place with a uniform set of pathologies.” This reinforces what Valentin Mudimbe calls ‘the invention of Africa’: the myth that prior to European colonisation, “... there was no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society.” Or in the present-day ‘invention of Africa,’ against the backdrop of COVID-19, there are “no masks, no treatment (and) …no resuscitation (services).”

Even if in a parallel universe where all 54 countries in Africa really had none of the things that Dr. Mira listed, isn’t it telling how in light of this global pandemic, he sees this as an opportunity for Western scientists rather than a public health emergency? It is as though ‘Africa,’ devoid of any sovereign countries, lies in wait for French experts like him to do as they wish with it. Could this be a throwback to the ‘scramble for Africa’ that followed the Berlin conference of 1884–85, and formalised a new wave of Africa’s continental subdivision and brutal take-over?

Though the content and tone of what Dr. Mira and company said is justifiably angering for many, it should also be disconcerting how truth shapeshifts so quickly in the ‘Twittersphere’ or in social media more broadly.

After watching the full 5-minute video, its content can be summarised as follows:

  1. there is a vaccine that protects against tuberculosis and is already widely used in many countries,
  2. there are ongoing trials in Europe, and in Australia, to test its efficacy against COVID-19,
  3. two French doctors discuss testing it in Africa, and one insinuates that Africa, as he imagines it, is uniformly destitute enough to make it a solid candidate, in absence of adequate medical resources to interfere with the study.

But it doesn’t take much time to find media outlets who publish articles that say:

French doctors discussed on live television how a new COVID-19 vaccine under development should be first tested in Africa” or “Colonialist French Doctors Suggest Testing COVID-19 Vaccine on Africans. Moreover, there is now a Change.org petition circulating with the heading “Sack Racist Dr Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht Now!” In the petition reads “…[o]n live television, Jean Paul Mira suggested Africa should be the testing ground for Covid-19 vaccines due to their vulnerabilities.”

The vaccine in question is no longer an old one designated for tuberculosis, but potentially multiple, new, untested ones, designated for COVID-19. What’s more, racist French doctors want to use them first in Africa, presumably before using it to inoculate ‘civilised society.’

And then there are the tweets:

This one was posted unironically by an account called ‘Africa Facts Zone.’

This distortion of reality is a feature of ‘cancel culture.’ It is the act of naming and shaming public figures and companies on social media after they have said or done something that offends or is seen as objectionable. Natalie Wynn, curator of the YouTube channel ‘ContraPoints,’ lists in this video four observable tropes of ‘cancel culture’:

  1. the ‘presumption of guilt’;
  2. abstraction’ (substituting specific details with generic statements);
  3. essentialism’ (targeting who the person is, rather than what they do);
  4. pseudo moralism or pseudo-intellectualism.’ This last one refers to how people go out of their way to demonstrate how the urgent need to ‘cancel’ someone (Sack Racist Dr Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht Now!) comes from ideals of moral integrity and/or intellectual rigor.

People who perpetuate ‘cancel culture’ would be inclined to frame, Dr. Mira as automatically guilty based on what triggered them on social media. This is because Dr. Mira is seen as a racist, who wants to use Africa as a laboratory for new COVID-19 vaccines, rather than someone who said or did things that could be justifiably read as racist. Since we’ve established that Dr. Mira is a racist, he should be fired (‘canceled’) because that is what justice looks like. So, though the Change.org petition is a wonderful starting point to putting his ‘cancelling’ into practice, erasing him off of the internet may be just as effective.

By now, this is an old song, but we need to be careful about what is spread through cyberspace, particularly on Twitter and social media. But let’s not let the doctors Mira, nor Locht, off of the hook for how unprofessional they have been, nor should we let LCI get away with not meaningfully addressing any of the problematic elements of that interview. But if people are going to participate in vigilante ‘cancelling,’ I urge them to do so without reproducing the tropes that Wynn lists, so we can try and keep reality intact. If nothing else, ‘cancelling’ people on false pretenses, gives them an easy out, because they can claim to have been “taken out of context” and escape facing real consequences for their actions.

Author's Note:

Kwaku Adomako is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences with a focus on Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He is affiliated to the gender centres both at the University of Lausanne and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

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