Africa: The COVID Consensus, African Studies and Internationalism

Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

‘It shouldn’t have been left to an historian of Lusophone Africa to write this book’, quipped an audience member at the launch of The Covid Consensus on 23 January 2023 in London. There was a general murmur of agreement. ‘But the book is deeply inspired by African studies’, I had contended to the person sitting next to me, a lecturer in philosophy/theology. It draws on the best work we have in African history and social anthropology such as by Leslie Bank, Florence Bernault and Paul Richards, who have featured prominently on African Arguments and in the associated book series.

We published Paul Richards’ ‘What Might Africa Teach the World? Covid-19 and Ebola Virus Disease Compared‘ on 17 March 2020, days before formal lockdowns were announced in Western Europe, keen to explore and stake out what fields such as (medical) anthropology, social histories of health, and African perspectives and experiences, could contribute to knowledge on the new pandemic.

‘And do you buy the stuff about medical colonialism?’, my interlocutor continued at the book launch. ‘Yes, I do’, I responded. And clarified that it was not medicine itself that was at issue, or indeed Western contributions to the development of modern medical science on the continent, but rather the inappropriate application of Western biomedical models in African societies that time and again have shown to be ill conceived or ineffective such as in combating Ebola, as Paul Richards has shown us, and HIV and AIDS as Isak Niehaus has critiqued. Leslie Bank has written about the devastating effects of applying a Western biomedical model to Covid-19 in rural South Africa.

Green and Fazi’s book might be considered a ‘brave’ publication in the North, given the pains the authors take to guard against being accused of entertaining ‘conspiracy theories’, but I did not feel it would be particularly controversial to an African readership. Indeed, the book is due to be published in Nigeria by Malthouse Press.

Green and Fazi’s central charge is that the policy response to Covid-19 (emanating from the Geneva-based World Health Organization) was Eurocentric. Policies designed in name to ‘protect’ developing countries led to disastrous consequences for their health and their economies. Deleterious impacts were had on existing child vaccination programmes as resources were diverted to Covid-19; inequality worsened, and different forms of authoritarianism took hold. Economies have been newly exposed to debt reminiscent of the Structural Adjustment era. Heath and education of the future have been ‘mortgaged’.

The key basis on whether this book stands or falls in challenging the ‘official’ or ‘consensual’ narrative of the pandemic that was largely embraced by a majority of governments globally is going to be on the quality and conviction of its evidence. This is no small task, given the vast (unprecedented) volumes of research and publication the pandemic generated. At almost 500 pages of text, the authors and publishers opted for an additional online annex of references and notes.

The authors, a historian of Africa and a journalist with socialist leanings from Italy, are clear in acknowledging their lack of qualifications to comment on such matters as the vital origins debate of the virus. They express caution about the use and limitations of computational modelling and the apparently strange policy consequences it produced – such as the ‘rule of six’, being allowed ‘six’, rather than say ‘seven’, people in your house! Yet they are modest in stating what they do bring to the discussion, and the different kinds of methods and evidence employed beyond quantitative data. Their skills as a historian and journalist are noted in Ana Lucia Araujo’s review of this book. I would draw attention to their knowledge of languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) which gave the authors access not only to the academic literature but perhaps more importantly to social knowledge: interviews done, everyday media and publication produced in Africa, Europe, North America, and Latin America.

The book is particularly impressive on Latin America as the authors are able to document the effects of the pandemic, policies and politics in countries such as Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua and Peru, which are of obvious relevance and comparison for African countries. One of their more optimistic observations is on the election of left-wing and social democratic governments in Latin America in 2021 and 2022, which the authors attribute to the ‘appalling war on the middle class and the poor that had been unleashed by Covid policies’.