Why the world must not misname the new COVID-19 variant


For a very long time Africa has had to bear the burden of misrepresentation from the West. From slavery, to colonisation and apartheid, our continent has been branded as dark, without reason and its people riddled by poverty and disease.

Misrepresentation takes many forms, and if not checked and challenged, it becomes fact. It is for this reason that I believe it is important that we question the recent reports that there is a newly discovered South African variant of COVID-19.

For many reasons this assertion that is unashamedly peddled by England and Australia, among other countries, is dangerous, if not completely uncalled for. More than being interested in the conclusiveness of the research around this variant, I want to interrogate the ethics behind the naming of this variant.

Here I am not suggesting that the scientific research that was conducted is unimportant, it is and can also be challenged for its validity and legitimacy, but that is not my preoccupation here.

Remember that science does not exist in silos. It is, just like other industries, affected by the politics of the day. As a matter of fact, science is highly political and has much to do with economics. If then makes sense to enquire as to why no one sees anything extremely unethical with dubbing the variant as South African.

Remember how vocal the world was when China was ‘credited’ as the source of COVID? Donald Trump was criticised and demonised when he publicly said “COVID is the disease of the people of China”. But that same energy is nowhere to be found in the case of South Africa.

What could be the reason for this? Is it because South Africa is a country in Africa? Many will say this is not the case, but what is the case then?

History has taught us that the world has no problem with misrepresenting and painting this continent as the place of all calamities and diseases. A place where nothing grows, a place of savages. This is not an exaggeration, but a close and brutally honest reading of how the West has and continues to treat Africa.

If this is not the case, why then is Africa used as a laboratory for experiments by pharmaceutical companies? Why does the West continue to plunder the resources of the continent? Why do we still have so many incidents of racism and discrimination against people of African descent?

The consequences of this (mis)naming could be dire. COVID-19 has affected world economics severely. Even strong nations such as America and China took a hit because of the virus.

Now let us think about how South Africa could be affected by being known as the country with the new variant of COVID-19. From tourism to trade, this has the potential of crippling our already limping economy. But the consequences are not only economic, they also affect us socially and the ways in which the world engages with us.

The petition therefore in this piece is that we be more careful of how the ways in which things are named not only has a symbolic effect, but also has a bearing on the concrete and material.

An uncritical mind might dismiss this as an insignificant observation, but upon close scrutiny, one begins to see differently. The West must not make dangerous pronouncements without being questioned, lest we forget the power that comes with being (mis)named and naming.

Our government’s silence is too loud. The onus is on us to question and challenge everything that seeks to represent us in a negative light.

We belong in the world and ethical considerations and sensitivities that other nations enjoy must also be enjoyed by us. We must at all times insist on our right to insist, and here I insist that we cannot accept without question that the new strand of COVID is named ‘South African COVID’.

Mcebo Dlamini is a former leader of student protests at Wits University.

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