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Decolonising the coronavirus vaccine

Reflecting on a potential Covid-19 vaccine trial during a television interview in April, a French doctor stated, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?” These remarks reflect a colonial view of Africa, reinforcing the idea that Africans are non-humans whose black bodies can be experimented on.

This colonial perspective is also clearly articulated in the alliance between France, The Netherlands, Germany and Italy to negotiate priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine for themselves and the rest of Europe. In the Dutch government’s announcement of the European vaccine coalition, they indicate that, “… the alliance is also working to make a portion of vaccines available to low-income countries, including in Africa.”

In the collective imagination of these European nations, Africa is portrayed as a site of redemption—a place where you can absolve yourself from the sins of “vaccine sovereignty,” by offering a “portion of the vaccines” to the continent. Vaccine sovereignty reflects how European and American governments use public funding, supported by the pharmaceutical industry and research universities, to obtain priority access to potential Covid-19 vaccines. The concept symbolises the Covid-19 vaccine (when it eventually becomes available) as an instrument of power deployed to exercise control over who will live and who must die.

In order to counter vaccine sovereignty, we must decolonise the vaccine. Africans have a particular role to play in leading this decolonisation process as subjects of colonialism and as objects of domination through coloniality. Colonialism, as an expansion of territorial dominance, and coloniality, as the continued expression of Western imperialism after colonisation, play out in the vaccine development space, most notably on the African continent.

So what does decolonising the vaccine look like? And how do we decolonise something that does not yet exist? For Frantz Fanon, “Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder.”

Acknowledging that the Covid-19 vaccine has been weaponised as an instrument of power by wealthy nations, decolonisation requires a Fanonian program of radical re-ordering. In the context of vaccine sovereignty, this re-ordering necessitates the dismantling of the profit-driven biomedical system.

This program starts with de-linking from Euro-American constructions of knowledge and power that reinforce vaccine sovereignty through the profit-driven biomedical system. Advocacy campaigns such as the “People’s Vaccine”, which calls for guaranteed free access to Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments to everyone, everywhere, are a good start. Other mechanisms, such as the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, similarly supports universal access to Covid-19 health technologies as global public goods.

Since less than 1% of vaccines consumed in Africa are manufactured on the continent, regional efforts to develop vaccine manufacturing capacity such as those led by the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Alliance of African Research Universities, must be supported. These efforts collectively advance delinking and move us closer toward the re-ordering of systems of power.

The opportunity for disorder is paradoxically enabled by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has permitted moments of existential reflection in the midst of the crisis. A few months ago, a press release announcing the distribution of “a portion of the vaccines” to Africans, may have been lauded as European benevolence. But in the context of a pandemic that is more likely to kill black people, Africa’s reliance on Europe for vaccine handouts is untenable, necessitating a re-examination of the systems of power that hold this colonial relationship in place.

The Black African body appears to be good enough to be experimented on, but not worthy of receiving simultaneous access to the Covid-19 vaccine as Europeans. Consequently, Africans continue to feel the effects of colonialism and white supremacy, and understand the pernicious nature of European altruism.

By reinforcing the current system of vaccine research, development and manufacturing, it has become apparent that European governments want to retain their colonial power over life and death in Africa through the Covid-19 vaccine.

Resistance to this colonial power requires the decolonisation of the vaccine.

This article was first published on Africa is a Country.

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A. Kayum Ahmed
A. Kayum Ahmed is Division Director for Access and Accountability at the Open Society Public Health Program in New York and teaches at Columbia University Law School.

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