The western media has focused so hard on the idea of African failure that it has somehow managed to equivocate two vastly unequal realities.
By Michelle Chikaonda
Even in the era of COVID-19, the West and its media are unable to cease salivating for African failure.
Early on in the pandemic, when Europe was quickly and decidedly overwhelmed by the disease and when America still held desperately on to the belief that the virus could be held at bay with mere travel bans, news articles about the destruction and death that Africa was certain to suffer abounded. ‘A ticking time bomb’: Scientists worry about coronavirus spread in Africa, warned one headline from March 15. Defending Africa from COVID-19; UN and Governments brace for virus spread, went another headline from March 26. Africa faces grave risks as COVID-19 emerges, says Berkeley economist, from March 31.
All these headlines at the very same time that Italy was just crossing its peak number of deaths per day from the virus, averaging 800 deaths a day in the last week of March, and the U.S. was in turn rapidly approaching 1000 deaths a day, doubling that rate barely two weeks later. Yet at that very same time, on March 27, South Africa was described by the New York Times—in the dramatic terms that western writers are so addicted to using for African stories—as “the epicenter of the epidemic on the continent.” It had, at the time, 1000 cases total. Not deaths. Cases.
The news coverage about Africa since the beginning of the global COVID-19 shutdowns has been almost unilaterally, maddeningly, negative. Not that the situation on the ground is not becoming worse. It is now, and in my home country of Malawi we are finally now seeing the significant uptick in illness and funerals that were anxiously anticipated four months ago. My mother calls me regularly with news about who has died that day; I have found my time increasingly consumed with writing condolence messages, and even this far away in Philadelphia I feel anxious and scared as things continue to worsen in Malawi.
However, since the beginning of the global shutdown, the media has been specifically and insistently focused on the prospect of African failure in the fight against COVID-19, even when the data did not support that kind of reporting at the time. That focus has been outsized compared to the existent situation with respect to COVID-19 in our countries, and the doomsday-like coverage has been profoundly hypocritical in the face of so many western countries’ own actual and abject failure to control the virus.
This betrays a critical element of why, to me, the situation on the ground in these same western countries has struggled to ameliorate itself. These countries, the U.S. a particular and notable example of this, are so committed to business as usual in terms of their own perceptions of the necessary order of the world—in which Africa must always be pitiable and on the verge of collapse—that it is inconceivable that the circumstances in their own countries could not only be identical to their beliefs about what is happening in much of Africa, but in fact, be demonstrably worse.
The western media has focused so hard on the idea of African failure that it has somehow managed to equivocate two vastly unequal realities. My home country of Malawi, for example, has a population of 18.1 million people, and to date has recorded less than 200 COVID-19 deaths; by comparison, the state of Pennsylvania has a population of 12.7 million, and to date has recorded over 7500 COVID-19 deaths.
Even the understanding of the likelihood that countries like Malawi are under testing doesn’t account for this gap—especially in the case of the U.S., where under testing remains a critical and fatal obstacle to understanding the true scale of the pandemic—and is thus a problematic and even irrelevant claim to make as a rebuttal against the demonstrable case that Africa is being disproportionately painted as COVID-19’s inevitable ground zero. The refusal of so many to take stock of the real plank in the West’s own eye with respect to the rest of the world is galling.
Having lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic in my home country in the 1990s and 2000s, experiencing a similarly ubiquitous presence of illness and death in my current life in the U.S. is deeply disorienting. It is simultaneously infuriating, though, because of how many folks still refuse to accept that it really is that bad, right here in America, and insist on continuing to live as though nothing has changed. Grocery shoppers still refuse to wear masks; people continue to attend crowded concerts; the government insists that schools must be reopened in the fall. The West, but the U.S. in particular, remains committed to the storyline of their global supremacy in all things, to their very literal peril.
I have learned in the last few months that even in a situation as dire as this, the Western world resolutely believes that Africa must fail. Not only that: they need for Africa to fail in order for their conceptions of themselves and their place in the global order to hold. But it is they who are failing—or, really, “we,” since I currently live in Philadelphia; for although I am now worried about Malawi, over the last five months my mother has been far more concerned about me. With U.S. and Western deaths continuing to outstrip African deaths many times over, it may be this pandemic that finally causes the stubborn, neocolonial conception of necessary African inferiority and calamity to fold in upon itself, and finally, begin to die.
Michelle Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Hobart, and Al Jazeera English, among others.
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