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COVID-19 – Civility and unity are needed, not racism

The first two weeks of this month were marked by news about two French scientists whose comments on testing a vaccine in Africa drew widespread criticism for being racist. The insidious remarks of the French scientists, one of whom later apologised, have been interpreted as evidence of a colonial mentality that still pervades the Global North.

Rejecting the idea of testing in Africa, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “The hangover from a colonial mentality has to stop. WHO will not allow this to happen.”

Incidents of this nature have a negative impact on the spirit of global cooperation which is critical to combating the coronavirus threat. While resisting racist slurs and similar forms of distraction, Africa should look towards engagements that benefit its people and greater humanity. Equally, the rest of the world should recognise the potential and possible contribution of Africa and the developing world in the fight against COVID-19.

Participation in clinical trials

Despite the need for global cooperation against the scourge, Africa still remains poorly represented in the clinical trials of the search for COVID-19 treatments.

Among the 300 trials launched around the world, many are taking place in China, South Korea and lately in the European Union and the United States, while developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa remain underrepresented. The recent initiative of WHO that is aimed at getting treatment for the new coronavirus through a multi-country clinical trial attracted 10 countries, with South Africa being the only one from the continent.

Given its genetic diversity, many fear that Africa’s underrepresentation in the clinical trials can have drawbacks on a continent predicted to become the next epicentre of the pandemic. WHO’s call for more participation from the continent is perhaps an indication of this concern.

Experience in viral outbreaks

Africa’s experience in the handling and treatment of viral outbreaks like Ebola should be a source of knowledge as to how the world should react to pandemics. The experience is also helpful in the search for vaccines and medicines.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa has a lot of lessons for the global community in terms of the circumstances in which the outbreak occurred, its effect on health systems, the structures and coordination of regional and global responses, as well as failures.

It is important to make available such experience not only to the scientific community but to the wider public so that proper lessons are drawn. A synopsis of what lessons can be obtained from the Ebola outbreak is available from Harvard’s online course on the subject.

Africa’s scientific potential

Although not widely talked about, Africa’s growing scientific competence in virology and genomics can make its own contribution to global collaborative efforts in the fight against COVID-19. The emerging potential in Africa has been witnessed in the last few weeks through the accomplishments of some research centres on the continent in their response towards combating COVID-19.

Nigerian research institutes such as the African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Disease at Redeemer’s University and the Centre for Human Virology and Genomics at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research for Sequencing and Molecular Characterization are now credited for their expertise, efficiency and steadfastness in sequence generation, sample processing and data analysis, as proven in handling some COVID-19 cases at global level.

Similarly, South African researchers have shown their competence in genome sequencing. The recently established Genomics Centre at the South African Medical Research Council to enable affordable genome sequencing in Africa is a new development that should be celebrated.

South Africa is also to be commended for its willingness to participate in the Public Health Emergency Solidarity Trial initiated by WHO. South Africa’s research team involves senior academics, researchers and clinicians from its eight medical schools, including Cape Town, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela, Pretoria, Sefako Makgatho, Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand universities, and including the South African Military Health Service.

Though limited in number, Africa also has some facilities that can be used in the fight against the pandemic. Gabon, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa have national biosafety laboratories that assist in research on viruses and other highly infectious pathogens.

In a similar vein, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Vaccine Regulatory Forum in the Regional Office of the WHO are making their own contributions in directing a host of regional efforts in the research and management of the COVID-19 threat on the continent.

Given the gravity of the COVID-19 threat, global cooperation should aim at synergising these resources and further strengthening Africa’s capacity. Apart from serving as additional platforms for global cooperation, Africa’s resources should also be shared among countries in the region with poor resources and fledgling infrastructure.

Traditional medicine

Arguably, Africa’s other potential in the fight against COVID-19 is traditional medicine. Governments that have recognised this potential are working in collaboration with traditional health practitioners. A case in point is Ethiopia.

Currently, the Ethiopian Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Innovation and Technology are cooperating in the development of a drug that combines scientific procedures with traditional knowledge.

The drug has passed through basic research procedures, according to WHO standards, and has shown some encouraging results. It is now moving towards a clinical trial phase. This effort indicates a sound interface between traditional medical knowledge and modern science. Such endeavours will make African capacities visible while also enhancing further collaboration within and beyond the continent.

The need for civility

The coronavirus pandemic has once again proven the common destiny of the human race. Hence, the global cooperation in search of a solution for COVID-19 should be an embodiment of that crucial principle. Such a path should leave no corner of the world behind.

However, recurring incidents across the globe suggest that there is still more to learn from our past mistakes and deficiencies. For instance, labelling the virus at its earliest stages as “Asian” or “Chinese” led to fear, resentment and xenophobia towards the Chinese and people of Asian descent. Unfortunately, the recent news of harassment of African students in China replicates the same sad pattern.

Such acts not only distract the global community from a remarkable sense of cooperation but also drain the energy that could be better used to defeat COVID-19.

Although much of the discourse on Africa’s battle against COVID-19 has been about the region’s vulnerability, there is a huge potential that the continent can share with the rest of the world. Promoting this potential and available resources is Africa’s primary responsibility.

While Africa should systematically engage with the rest of the world in combatting COVID-19, the global community should appropriately recognise its contribution and those of others. As coronavirus attacks the human race indiscriminately, concerted global efforts and collaboration of the highest order remain an imperative to defeat it.

Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founder-president of St Mary’s University, Ethiopia, and PROPHE (Program for Research on Private Higher Education) affiliate. E-mail: or Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. E-mail: or

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