The French doctors who wanted to test vaccines on Africans and Western medicine’s dark history

Not an experiment.
Not an experiment.
Image: REUTERS/Hereward Holland
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At a time when footballers have been urged to do more to address the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was striking to see three Africans who have graced the world stage speaking out.

In a television discussion that has become swiftly infamous, two French doctors—one of them the head of an intensive-care unit in Paris—suggested trials for vaccines against Covid-19 should be conducted upon African patients.

The remarks of professors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht met immediately with fury, with the words of Didier Drogba, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o attracting particular attention. “It is inconceivable that we continue to accept this,” wrote the former Ivorian international Drogba on Twitter, sharing his tweets in both French and English so as to ensure their widest possible audience.

“Africa is not a laboratory. I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racist words…Do not take African people as human guinea pigs! It’s absolutely disgusting…African leaders have a responsibility to protect their populations from those horrendous conspiracies.”

Demba Ba, the French-born Senegalese international, looked at the broader context of white supremacy. “Welcome to the West”, he commented, “where white people believe themselves to be so superior that racism and stupidity have become commonplace.”

Meanwhile, the former Cameroonian superstar Samuel Eto’o delivered a brusque and brutal verdict. “Sons of bitches,” he wrote.

The doctors have since apologized in response to the global outrage but the anger of Drogba, Ba, Eto’o and countless others has deep roots, since Mira and Locht were merely invoking a long tradition of French experimentation upon Africans. To take just one example between 1921 and 1956, millions of citizens were forced by French colonial governments “to receive injections of medications with dubious efficacy and with serious side effects, including blindness, gangrene, and death.”

Elsewhere, the history of the violation of the lives of Africans for the scientific benefit of white Westerners is long and horrifying. Arguably the most grim chapter of all is the life of J. Marion Sims, the 19th-century American physician who is credited by many with developing the field of gynecology. He did so by operating upon enslaved African women without anesthesia to try out his theories, subjecting one woman—Anarcha—to no less than thirty such experiments.

Less than a century later, hundreds of African American men – enticed by the offer of free healthcare – were infected with syphilis, which then had no cure, without their knowledge. Even when a cure was discovered, those men were not provided with it.

The timing of the comments of Mira and Locht could not have been worse, for two reasons. First, there is an argument that since Covid-19 represents a threat to global public health, it requires a global solution: that is to say, that vaccines should be trialled on citizens in every continent where it has had an impact.

There is a need for treatments which are tailored to the specific national context; to quote medical journal The Lancet, “interventions need to be affordable and available, and adaptable to the health-care systems and the populations they serve”. There is of course a crucial difference between the call for such trials by the World Health Organization—which was issued with a view to collaboration—and, to use his own words, Mira’s “provocative” suggestion that these trials should be carried out on the kind of people who “are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves”.

Those words, used to describe African sex workers who live and earn money in perilous conditions, carried the air of blame: that these people, due to their high-risk lifestyles, were somehow more disposable.

And for the record, WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopian, has called out the comments as “racist”. ”Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine,” he says.

Secondly, Mira and Locht made their remarks in the very same week that the Democratic Republic of Congo announced its citizens would take part in the testing of vaccines against Covid-19; the same week the World Bank also announced a $47 million grant to the DRC for its emergency response to this pandemic. What should therefore have been a period where DR Congo should have been given some measure of credit for its leadership became one where the country was criticized for offering up its own people as cannon fodder.

In this vein, there is nothing wrong with the continent’s citizens—having been provided with detailed and transparent guidelines by WHO—putting themselves forward for trials of a vaccine. In doing so, they would be enabling more effective treatment for the particular needs of everyone who does not have the luxury of social distancing, as do many wealthy Western nations. In fact, such a move should be applauded: this would be an act of civic participation, not experimentation.

Yet if there is great hostility towards politicians on the continent in general, then it cannot be said to be without foundation. These are several of the same politicians, it must always be remembered, who have so little faith in their own healthcare systems—systems which they have chronically underfunded for years if not decades—that they do not trust them with their own wellbeing, instead choosing to fly to elite hospitals in Europe for treatment.

That is why there is rage that African footballers are apparently being more outspoken in defense of African interests than African politicians.  Nevertheless, this may be eventually seen as a point where Africa asserted itself as a peer in global medicine, rather than having answers imposed upon it.

The widespread outrage at what these doctors said is helpful, in that it reminds us of the dangers of the too-often colonial instincts of Western medicine. If we look past it, at the reality of what is already happening in many places on the ground, we find something even more helpful, perhaps even inspiring. We see a disparate group of medical professionals working together across borders, sharing knowledge and resources: we see them, without fanfare, discarding the old dynamics of Western imposition in favor of an ethos of genuine global coalition.

If there can be any vision for a better future, then it is one where nations operate in the spirit of collaboration, not exploitation. If the response to Covid-19 is to have any kind of positive legacy, then it could not do much better than that.

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