Although they were speaking about putting human lives at risk, the two doctors sounded totally casual.
What was presented as an innocent “provocation” was quickly labeled racist by public personalities such as rap star Dosseh, former Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, international soccer players Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o and even Star Wars actor John Boyega. The director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, condemned the comments as a “disgrace,” “appalling” and a product of the “colonial mentality.” Soon, the hashtag #AfricaIsNotYourLab went viral on social media.
The scientists ultimately apologized, but what is at stake is more than that single TV debate. The controversy unveiled an attitude that has been prevalent throughout French history.
The subtext of the conversation was clear. It conveyed a view that the bodies of Africans and sex workers are not valued in their own right. No mention of consent appeared during the talk. These bodies were presented as disposable subjects for any experimentation that could be helpful to the Western world.
This attitude has a lot to do with the history of France, and more generally of the construction of patriarchy and white supremacy. For centuries, enslaved and colonized bodies have been exploited for the purpose of so-called science.
Numerous women were tortured by scientists so that colonial states could enjoy the progresses of medicine. These abusers include the American doctor James Marion Sims, known as the founder of the modern gynecology. His research was based on experiments performed on the bodies of enslaved black women, who endured atrocities in order to help him create tools that are still part of medicine today.
Similar abuses took place throughout French history and lasted even beyond the colonial era. In France, Saartjie Baartman — a woman from South Africa who became famous for her features, which were then seen as “exotic” and even erotic — was relentlessly exposed in fairs in the early 19th century, becoming a symbol of racist dehumanization. After her death in 1815, her body was dissected. Her remains stayed on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until the mid-1970s.
And until 1931, France used to have “human zoos” that forced colonized people from Africa, Asia, America or Oceania to perform their ethnicity to entertain white people while claiming to educate them.
In the 1960s, France decided to build a nuclear policy. Even after the official end of colonization in Algeria in 1962, the nuclear tests were conducted in the Sahara Desert from 1960 to 1966, and in French Polynesia until 1996. More recent research shows that some tests on the use of chemical gas took place in Africa, too. The health implications of those tests were hidden by the French army for a long time, and victims are still struggling to get compensation.
These attitudes are not just part of colonial history. As recently as 1996, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer conducted a meningitis drug trial on children in Nigeria; 11 children who took part in the trial died, and the company faced a lawsuit and eventually settled.
Nowadays, the bodies of sex workers and Africans are still seen as other, whether they are migrants unwanted by the Western world or prostitutes criminalized instead of being supported. The exploitation of these bodies is used to reinforce the structures of power created by colonization, enslavement and patriarchy.
In the midst of the spread of the covid-19 pandemic, many African nations cannot afford not to access treatments that could save their populations from tragedy. But they have their own scientists, and it is up to their governments to decide whether the tests are timely and appropriate. It is time to remove the colonial lens so that Africans settle policies on their own terms and remain in charge of their destinies.