No Room for Racism in COVID-19 Response

April 16, 2020


A Student Perspective Piece by Undergraduate Student, Cassi Niedziela

The COVID-19 pandemic will require global solidarity and cooperation to ensure effective response measures around the world, but racism is unfortunately still front and center on the global stage.

Two French doctors recently proposed that clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine be conducted in Africa by claiming that African people, “like prostitutes, are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves.”

Not only is this language outrageous coming from healthcare providers, but its racism indicates an old “colonial mentality” that Black and African lives are expendable. It perpetuates the false narrative that people who live in Africa are unwilling or unable to protect themselves from the virus.

One of the primary reasons for struggling health systems across the continent is colonization and the centuries of exploitation that came with it. A racist remark such as “African people don’t protect themselves” ignores the history that has made it almost impossible for African health systems to develop to their full potential.

In fact, the West’s exploitation of Black lives is a theme throughout history. A prime example is any of the medical experiments on African people during the colonial era that were forcibly conducted to devastating effect. For example, French studies in Cameroon to understand sleeping sickness forced people at gunpoint to undergo medical examinations and experiments that left about 20 percent of patients with partial or total blindness.

Or consider the 1931 Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the United States, which aimed to understand the natural history of syphilis. The Black men enrolled in the study were not informed of the study’s true aims, and once a treatment for syphilis was discovered they were not given proper treatment. This exploitation was unethical and has no place in today’s world.

Overall, combatting COVID-19 is a global problem that must be met with global solutions. Testing should not be conducted on any group of people because of antiquated, unjust ideas. Instead clinical trials should span the globe, and we must ensure that no group is treated with less dignity and respect than another. 



C. Niedziela

Cassi Niedziela
Undergraduate Student in Global Public Health & Sociology;  
Editorial Assistant for GPH Office of Communication & Promotions