Why Is There A Fixation On The African Continent’s Covid-19 Numbers?

Every week brings a new iteration of the newsbite showing how western media is so perplexed that the African continent is not doing as badly as they would have predicted, in the context of Covid-19. On September 5, it was the New York Post sharing that “Scientists can’t explain puzzling lack of coronavirus outbreaks in Africa.” Days before, it was BBC Africa asking if the “mystery of low death rate” could be caused by poverty. These are indeed not isolated incidents.

While global health experts are giving their best predictions about possible timelines for this pandemic, the whole world is still reckoning with uncertainty, healthcare logistics, and figuring out what the long-term implications of the pandemic will be on various sectors. Amidst all of this, there appears to be a fascination or fixation on how the African continent is faring with the pandemic, that was already in play as the pandemic spread towards ‘the west.’ It is worth reflecting on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of this fixation.

In the first quarter of the year we already saw several western media outlets puzzling over a lack of devastation on the African continent, or hypothesizing over what the virus’s effect would be in the so-called Global South. In March 2020, The Washington Post asserted that “the pandemic is about to devastate the developing world.” In that same month, CNBC framed the outbreak of Covid-19 in Africa as the reason for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics (this story was updated after complaints were made over its racist framing).

In April 2020, writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola shared on Twitter about a decision to decline writing a piece on “why Africa will fail to control the Coronavirus.” One month later Nyabola would write a piece stating that “Africa is spoken for and spoken about but so rarely allowed to speak”, highlighting the responsibility of those covering the pandemic to hold space for on-the-ground journalists and community storytellers who actually have the lived experience and most current perspectives. 

George Kibala Bauer, Contributing Editor at Africa Is a Country, has previously pointed out that “Many ‘Africa is doing great with Covid’ takes are as problematic as the ‘Africa is hopeless in the face of this crisis’ takes. They lack nuance, downplay the complexity of the situation, and most importantly still operate within the western gaze.” Bauer notes the homogenization of the entire continent within most western narratives stating that, “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some fundamental issues that continue to plague western reporting on Africa. Many pundits rushing to gain attention and shape the narrative on ‘Covid-19 in Africa’ (yes – all 54 countries) make sweeping claims about the continent as a whole, which are informed by only a few data points and quotes from selected countries.”

The need to desist from this ‘single story’ narrative is echoed by Dr. Oluwafunmilayo Akinlade, Public Health Analyst at the Federal Ministry of Health Nigeria, who states that “reporting on Africa as a continent rather than a sum 54 countries is hardly new, but the effects of such messages are especially detrimental at this time. Describing the methods with which Africa as a whole is navigating Covid-19 tells an incomplete story, lacking defined societal overtones and silencing nations.”

The success, or clickability, of stories and news articles is contingent upon the appetite for the narratives they contain. It is imperative however, that global health reporting gives a true and fair reflection of facts. Achieving a balance is the responsibility of the story-teller- who also wields the power to reframe harmful historical myths by reporting factually, accurately, and with nuance. Invariably, this leads to the question: who gets to tell these stories? Bauer emphasizes the need to highlight and platform the work of African healthcare reporters: “Going beyond this western gaze and overcoming these challenges means supporting local reporters, focusing on specific contexts, engaging in mindful comparative reporting, and embracing complexity in all its form even if it means all of Africa won’t be explained in one attention-grabbing headline.”  

Dr. Akinlade agrees that a lot of the reporting to date has been biased, and as such has erased contributions from local journalists telling stories about public health innovation in different parts of the continent. “This biased reporting rewrites history to fit western narratives,  peddling a single story about a highly nuanced situation to feed the Global North’s savior complex, and demonstrates profound dissonance and detachment from the people whose struggles the articles attempt to highlight,” she says.

The pandemic and its accompanying reporting highlight just how much the field of global health communication requires nuance and care in story-telling.

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