Want the pandemic to end? Dismantle colonial systems of oppression


February 8, 2022
Hanna Belayneh, Policy and Advocacy Officer, Results Canada

Much like a magnifying glass, the global response to COVID-19 is exposing the enduring presence of colonial dynamics in the current – defective – world order. As we celebrate Black History Month – a powerful recognition of Black narratives and the necessity to disrupt dominant ones – we, as advocates for health equity, must continue confronting the reality that the legacy of colonialism is alive and well – and reflect on what we can do about it.

From the onset, the world’s knee-jerk reaction when faced with the unprecedented pandemic laid bare the systemic oppression of African groups. It did not take long for Western discourses to propose that African countries should be used as a testing ground for a vaccine before introducing it to occidental countries, showing just how pervasive the colonial mentality is in resolving global health issues.

When predictions of catastrophic waves of COVID-19 did not become a reality in African countries early in the pandemic, many explanations with colonial undertones were quick to make sense of the lower rates of infection and mortality, without giving credit to any positive actions. For the white saviour used to “helping” Africa, it was unthinkable that some African countries simply had more experience responding to outbreaks such as Ebola and already had systems in place for contact tracing and isolation.

And more recently, the international community’s response to the first detection of the Omicron variant in Southern Africa was purely and simply racist and resulted in South Africans being banned from travelling to almost every Western country. Instead of shunning South Africa, what the global community should have done was celebrate how the country detected the new variant so rapidly because it has some of the world’s best epidemiologists and infectious disease resources.

Now the question remains: within this eco-system, how can we intentionally weave anti-oppression into our advocacy to eliminate systemic racism, and the ensuing inequities?

1. Educating ourselves

As advocates, we are responsible for recognizing how the relationships within global health are still heavily dominated by white supremacy. We must intentionally educate ourselves about the history of the systemic racism plaguing the world’s response to COVID-19, so we will not blindly follow ideas that naturalize the existing order and so we can take more meaningful action.

2. Holding decision-makers accountable

From our seat of privilege in high-income countries, we must call out community leaders for taking an active part in upholding the colonial model. We must denounce how rich countries not only hoard vaccines and are not transparent about the number of excess doses shared, but also deny African and other low-income countries the ability to manufacture their own vaccines by opposing the TRIPS Waiver. Instead of providing equal access to vaccines, too many wealthy countries in North America and Europe are patronizing lower-income countries by deciding what health care tools they can have to respond to the pandemic, and under what conditions. It is up to us to push back against this model and relentlessly urge decision makers to course correct.

3. Challenging dominant narratives

Stories shape public opinion. That is why it is essential to debunk oppressive narratives before they grow legs. We can use our voices to set the record straight and make sure that Black narratives are not buried under dominant ones. So, the world is pretending that African countries do not have the capacity to manufacture vaccines? Let it be known that Egypt and South Africa are perfectly capable of scaling up the production of COVID-19 vaccines if data and technology are shared. Mainstream media is positioning vaccine hesitancy as the root cause of Africa’s unacceptably low vaccination rate? Let it be known that the primary problem is vaccine famine, not vaccine hesitancy – and so on.

4. Celebrating Black voices

By the same token, we should actively celebrate contributions and achievements by Black people and countries in the global pandemic response. Elevate Black voices such as Dr. John Nkengasong’s, who is brilliantly leading Africa’s response to the pandemic. Shed the spotlight on remarkable success stories, like Rwanda’s feat in containing the impact of the pandemic and invite higher-income countries to draw lessons. Such recognition will go a long way in breaking the idea of Black people as vulnerable individuals who lack agency and are lost without Western aid.

As advocates for a fairer world, we have been warning leaders that only global solidarity will end the pandemic – and yet here we are. There is still a long way to go to dismantle the deeply engrained colonial frameworks, but we must not lose heart. We must consistently stand against oppressive forces – during Black History Month and all year long.

This post by Hanna Belayneh was originally published on the Results Canada blog.

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