During a debate on FrenchTV channel LCI, a discussion took place on clinical trials for the COVID-19 cure taking place in Europe or Australia.

Jean-Paul Mira, a French doctor and head of intense care at Cochin Hospital in Paris said, “It may be provocative. Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?”

The comment quickly sparked worldwide outrage, with many condemning the comments as racist. Ivorian football player Didier Drogba took to Twitter expressing that “Africa is not a testing lab.” This quickly spread across the social media app as a hashtag.

Shortly after, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, denounced the comments made by Mira, referring to it as a ‘colonial mentality.’

“African can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine,” Ghebreyesus vowed.

Colonial Legacy

One look through history can reveal how Europe has used Africa as a dumping ground for unethical medical trials. Pharmaceutical companies have long-since left their mark on African countries after testing dangerous drugs on unsuspecting participants, leaving behind rampant human rights abuses.

In the 1990s, the United States conducted clinical trials for HIV/Aids in Africa. Not only were participants not informed about the effectiveness or dangers of the drug, but the trials led to around 1,000 babies born with the disease.

Similarly, in the 90s in Nigeria, one of the world’s biggest research-based pharmaceutical companies Pfizer led clinical trials in the country after a severe outbreak of meningitis. The company was complicit in the deaths of 11 children whose parents did not even give proper consent for the testing. It took a 15-year legal battle before the parents saw any compensation.

However, scientific racism in Africa dates to the colonial era, when empires used the continent to conduct whatever tests they wanted as a way of furthering racism and imperialism. For example, in the early 1900s, Dr Eugen Fischer conducted sterilisation trials on women in modern-day Namibia, largely done on mixed-race offspring as a way of justifying a ban on mixed-race marriages. Fischer later joined the Nazi party and conducted the same experiments on a Jewish concentration camp.

This colonial narrative that categorises African people as ‘sub-human’ is unfortunately not completely a thing of the past. It’s a mentality that believes Africa is somehow a guinea pig for the advancement of medicine and not a place with people deserving of human rights. Even more shocking is that a doctor from a former colonial empire spreading these ideas on national television. In the global response to the COVID-19 virus, it’s important to remember that colonial practices have no place in science.

Photo Credit: The South African

Aisha Mohamed