Public health crises often coincide with the scapegoating of certain communities as responsible for being the originators and/or spreaders of diseases. The diverging trajectories of the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2013-2016 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in West Africa have shaped scapegoating patterns during these outbreaks.
The 2013-2016 EVD epidemic began in the Mano River Basin (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia) in West Africa and spread to other parts of the world, but without taking a foothold anywhere else. Africans were constructed as disease vectors in imaginaries around the world and suffered stereotyping, name calling, verbal harassment and physical attacks. This scapegoating drew on old notions of the continent as a backward and diseased place that poses a threat to the health and wellbeing of the rest of the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic started in China and has successfully spread to the rest of the world, with Africa as one of its latest destinations. One would expect that this trajectory would provide Africans and the African continent with some respite from scapegoating and stereotyping. But age-old perceptions about the continent die hard, as some in China somehow still found a way to frame African immigrants there as Covid-19 vectors.
This stereotyping is also visible in some warnings about the impending havoc that Covid-19 will cause in Africa. Many of these predictions make valid points about precarious healthcare systems on the continent that were only further gutted by structural adjustment programs. But some of them have a sense of inevitability about them that tend to reinforce longstanding visions of the continent as a peculiar “other”, defined by lack and an inability to grapple with problems.
Unlike the 2013-2016 EVD outbreak, the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic placed Africans in the position of fear for the eventual spread to their communities of a disease whose outbreak originated elsewhere. Some Africans have ably undercut narratives of their alterity by wandering down the well-trodden path of scapegoating others - mainly Chinese people and Europeans - as disease vectors. Social media posts have gone along with name-calling, insults and even physical attacks on people thought to be Chinese or Europeans, leading some prominent Africans to condemn these attacks.
This practice of scapegoating others during disease outbreaks has to be properly understood as what Michel Foucault called biopolitics. They go beyond anxiety over the protection of life as a biological phenomenon to frame concerns over the welfare of political communities. Discourses on the health dangers posed by Chinese people and Europeans invoke histories of European colonialism, and the current European immigration policies that have turned the Mediterranean into a veritable cemetery, and also what is portrayed as China’s exploitative economic activities in Africa.
In my work on intercommunal relations in Senegal in the shadow of the 2013-2016 EVD epidemic, I found that these xenophobic practices during epidemics often mask extensive acts of conviviality across communal lines in Africa. Conviviality in Africa is the subject of much work by Francis Nyamnjoh. I show how even many who scapegoated whole groups as disease vectors systematically act with great kindness towards certain individual members of these targeted groups.
Such ambiguous behaviour has marked other inter-group conflicts and attests to the vexing work of boundary-making in societies marked by intense interactions across communal lines. They show that, despite the tendency to homogenise and scapegoat whole communities, people’s quotidian interactions with individuals in these scapegoated groups during epidemics vary, based on the person they face.
In the onerous work of negotiating complex lives during epidemics, the fact of being a stranger is not always the first or most important thing that comes to people’s minds; or that which they first consider when they face someone belonging to a group that they think of as being from elsewhere. The weight of histories of interactions and the banal realities of quotidian existence sometimes lead people to ignore the dictates of those xenophobic discourses that they themselves may well be at the forefront of propagating.
The West African EVD epidemic taught me to look below the surface of loud and aggressive xenophobic discourses, and to discover the ways in which conviviality across inter-communal lines persist during these public health crises. In the arduous work of constructing and maintaining political community during disease outbreaks, xenophobic lore (no matter how widespread) has not always trumped the exigencies of daily existence. People, including some of the biggest propagators of xenophobic discourses, have continued having interactions that they perceive as emotionally fulfilling, economically beneficial and logistically convenient, with members of scapegoated communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic provides additional evidence of people’s tendency to subvert the neat schemas hatched by xenophobic discourses in their pursuit of what they perceive, no matter how problematically, as their safety, happiness and fulfilment. Returning African emigrants, some of whom have unfortunately spread Covid-19 to their countries of origin, have been viciously castigated in their home countries.
In online comments on stories covering some of these cases in Senegal, people have roundly condemned these migrants, called for their prosecution, appealed to the state to close the country’s borders to keep them out and asked these migrants to just “stay where they are [in Europe]”. The targeting of these returning “daughters and sons of the soil” with treatment normally reserved for “foreigners” shows that just as we do not waver to incorporate the other into the body politic where we deem it beneficial to our project of building political community, we also do not hesitate to excise those members that we perceive (even if erroneously) as dangerous to the body(politic).
Advocacy across Africa for non-discrimination against “foreigners” during the Covid-19 pandemic has been widespread; and that is a good thing. Extending activism beyond discouraging the scapegoating of “foreigners”, to dissuading the act of scapegoating regardless of who the target may be, will be a positive step. It will help protect categories of people who are suffering similar scapegoating in communities in which they are widely accepted as citizens or autochthones.
Ato Kwamena Onoma is a senior program officer at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. His research focuses on migration, belonging and intercommunal relations in Africa. The ideas developed in this blog are also treated in more detail in his latest academic article for the journal Medical Anthropology, titled Epidemics, Xenophobia And Narratives Of Propitiousness.
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