A health worker sprays his headset during a community testing exercise, as authorities race to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
A health worker sprays his headset during a community testing exercise, as authorities race to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Abuja, Nigeria. Picture: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Covid-19 is colour blind but world isn't

By David Monyae Time of article published Apr 22, 2020

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Johannesburg - The term “colour line”, originally used by Frederick Douglass in his essay published in North American Review three years before the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, captured vividly the racial segregation in US. It was, however, WEB Du Bois who widened the scope of the term in international relations.

As a leading pan-African scholar and activist who settled in the first independent African country, Ghana, in 1957, Du Bois stated in his book, The Souls of Black Folk that, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line”.

No doubt, the prevailing Covid-19 will profoundly redefine and reshape global politics.

Despite tangible political and economic achievements made in Africa and many parts of the world to roll back racism, Covid-19 has a potential to reinforce colour lines of the 19th and 20th centuries, as defined by Douglass and Du Bois. There is no scientific proof that Covid-19 as a disease targets black people. The overwhelming evidence clearly shows that it is indeed colour blind. It targets all people from all races.

However, early signals in the US, Europe and Latin America show that people of African descent are disproportionally affected more than others by the disease. An article, Black Plague, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in The New Yorker stated: “Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality.” At face value, it appears as if this is an American story. It is definitely not.

Globally, Covid-19 will equally have its own colour line. As the poorest and least developed continent, Africa, stands to be disproportionally affected by the pandemic whether it spreads on the continent as expected or not.

The Covid-19 broke out in China late last year when Ghana was granting 126 African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans citizenship.

To mark the occasion, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said: “We recognise our unique position as the location for 75% of the slave dungeons built on the west coast of Africa through which the slaves were transported. That is why we had a responsibility to extend the hand of welcome, back home to Africans in the diaspora.”

The post-Covid-19 world order will adversely affect Africa. It is therefore imperative for Africans to be vigilant and active in the reshaping of the rules of engagement after the time of corona. The starting point should be to double their efforts limiting the spread of the pandemic. This should be done concurrently with improvements of the public health, safeguarding food security and ensuring that Africa and Africans in the diaspora are at the forefront of the research in finding vaccines for Covid-19.

As it stands, Africa is too fragmented to allow individual countries to marshal effective Covid-19 measures and participate meaningfully in the remaking of the post-Covid-19 global order.

The AU should devise a multiprolonged strategy to re-engage partners in the global North and South. The most important item in such discussions would be finding ways of handling Africa’s debts owed to multilateral institutions and countries.

The biggest challenge is to ensure that debt is either rescheduled or forgiven. This could allow debt payments be redirected to the war on Covid-19.

If Africa fails to devise strategies to mitigate the Covid-19 impact, the continent may come out of the pandemic weaker than other continents.

The only way of overcoming the colour line for Africa and Africans in the diaspora can be ascertained if their social and economic conditions drastically improve. The colour line that began on the plantations in the US appears here to stay.

* David Monyae is director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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