Black people are not your guinea pigs

The suggestion that Africa is well-suited for COVID-19 vaccine testing is yet another example of anti-Blackness in medicine

There are many examples of unethical medical experimentation, like Tuskegee pictured above, on Black bodies throughout history. Photo courtesy of National Archives Atlanta, GA, via Wikimedia Commons.

By: Idara L. Udonya, SFU student

All over the world researchers, epidemiologists, and other health experts are working around the clock on a vaccine for COVID-19. The race for a vaccine, however, presents some concern considering the histories of medicine in which Black bodies are undervalued and subjected to experimentation. In light of this, vaccine testing that is specifically targeted at Africans and Black bodies is particularly worrying. 

During an interview on French national television, Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of ICU services at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, and Dr. Camille Locht, research director for France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research, made explicit mention to how the testing of a potential vaccine should be done in Africa. The vaccine in question is an existing treatment for tuberculosis. The doctors’ reasoning is that Africa lacks the infrastructure to effectively treat COVID-19 on its own, and therefore trials should be done there. Mira likened the trials to AIDS studies performed on prostitutes because they are “highly exposed and they don’t protect themselves.” Not only is this argument incredibly reductive in its colonial assumptions that the entire continent of Africa is defined by poor public health and poverty, but it ignores the real impacts COVID-19 is having on other global populations. 

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization estimates infections for the Americas at over 7.3 million, and Europe at over 3 million. Africa on the other hand doesn’t even top 600,000 cases. Yet no one is suggesting that vaccine tests be performed in the Americas just because US Americans have poor public health compliance and corrupt, incompitent leadership. Why are some health experts pushing for vaccine testing to be focused in Africa?

Medical advancement has a storied history in Black pain. A systemic disregard for Black lives and a desensitization to Black suffering has existed for hundreds of years and has worked to maintain the state of Black undervaluation. Notable examples of this included the Tuskegee syphilis study, where 600 Black American men were subject to uninformed testing of a new syphilis drug and prevented from receiving treatment for the actual disease, even after an effective treatment was discovered. Another is the AZT HIV/Aids transmission preventative drug testing in Zimbabwe in 1994 where infected women were not properly informed about the experiment, and some were given placebos which led to the transition of the virus to 1,000 babies. Illegal meningitis treatments were performed in Nigeria, where testing was done without governmental approval and led to many child deaths, blindness, and brain damage. These are only a few examples out of a plethora where medicine, through experimentation on Black peoples, acts as a form of science racism. 

The idea that Black bodies are tougher and able to withstand experimentation is racist and incorrect, and has been disproven multiple times. Yet many medical personnel still hold onto it, thus engaging in racist assumptions that deny the humanity of Black people. As a result, Black lives are seen as expendable in the service of medicine, causing an internalisation of anti-Blackness, which alongside other discriminatory practices, blocks access to efficient medical care resulting in an increase in health issues. 

And direct medical racism isn’t the only way that anti-Blackness harms the health of Black people. Systematic poverty due to a history of racist policies keeps Black people in highly polluted areas with little to no infrastructure. Distrust in the systems of the oppressors translates into distrust of the entire medical system, leading Black people to seek care less frequently — if they even have the resources to access care in the first place.

COVID-19 is a global problem that demands global solutions. But the medical community cannot be allowed to exploit Black bodies in order to get there. Black people are as deserving of care as any other race — medical ethics need not be applied to only white bodies. Black health matters; it always has, and it always should.