Will Africa be included in a global history of Covid-19?


Over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, one would be hard-pressed to deny that future history books will record this as a global milestone in the 21st century. Every individual around the world has in some way been affected by the virus; however, mainstream – Western – media remains guilty of underreporting the pandemic in Africa. As history is already in the process of being written, the question remains – will Africa be included in a global history of Covid-19?

Figure 1. Briefing between Community Health Volunteers and staff from Trócaire partner MMM, Kenya 

It is an open secret that the field of global history is Eurocentric, with the tendency to emphasise the Global North and how it ‘drove’ world events. While historians of the field, according to the Global History Seminar Group of the European University Institute in Florence, may reject “models of core and periphery … unwittingly they replicate these models over and over again.” Adelman discusses the dominance of Anglophone history and the English language, arguing that this results in Anglospheric initiatives “to integrate the Other into a cosmopolitan narrative on [their] terms, in [their] tongues.”

A pattern of inclusion and exclusion, reflective of a Western world order, can therefore be seen within the current form of ‘global’ history. This is evident in popular histories of world events. World War I and II, for instance, both involved combat on the African continent and African soldiers fighting side by side with Europeans, but they are relegated to footnotes in history books – if mentioned at all. The Cold War is another example of historical exclusion: as an ideological battle that was fought across all continents in the latter half of the 20th century, its effects too were felt in Africa. The continent saw the power rivalry between the Eastern and Western blocs play out in a number of ways, most notably perhaps in Angola during the country’s civil war. The global nature of these historical events is belied through their whitewashing in history books and ignoring of the role of Africa and Africans. 

Arguably the only time when Africa plays a dominant role in history is in writings on slavery, in which this dark period is largely discussed in economic terms, as a link in a global supply chain that drove industrialisation that resulted in the dehumanisation and abuse of millions of Africans across both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from this, Africa generally remains a marginalised geographical space and Africans are nameless, faceless individuals lacking agency. This results in a highly selective narrative in global history, one that privileges perspectives of a certain group of people over those of others.

There is a danger that the same patterns could be replicated in writings of a global history of Covid-19. The history of the pandemic is already in the process of being created and preserved across the Global North. Different initiatives by libraries,universities and other institutions in, for example, the UKGermany or the USA, have created online archives and repositoriesthat allow individuals to upload texts and images in relation to their experiences of the pandemic. These are certainly all laudable enterprises, and will be invaluable primary sources to historians in future years. However, my concern is that in the writing of global history, these archives will be prioritised, at the expense of marginalising African experiences of the pandemic.

We can see such side-lining also taking place in mainstream Western news outlets. We consume media and news items on a daily basis that will one day be used as primary sources by historians in the future. Often, the entire continent of 54 countries is amalgamated into one, as news sites report on Covid-19 in ‘Africa’, with a predisposition to emphasise the doom and gloom the continent faces. And sometimes, Africa is ignored completely, such as in a BBC News video from July 2020 that showed how Covid-19 had changed the world in six months.

Figure 2. Victoria Nthenge, Kenyan clinical health care workers sensitise the community to Covid-19.

Such reporting is one-sided, often overlooking the nuances of the pandemic in Africa, as well as the continent’s successes. Global history’s emphasis on Eurocentric hegemony means that research in this field is often already reliant on visiting national archives around the world, which tend to reflect the past of those in power whilst marginalising individuals such as women, people of colour, people with disabilities, or members of the LGBTQI+ community. The exclusion that can be observed in history books is being replicated in mainstream media today and, in years to come these will be the inaccurate sources that will be drawn upon by historians of the pandemic to create a skewed history of a pandemic that is fundamentally global in nature. 

We have the opportunity, however, to ensure Africa’s inclusion in a global history of Covid-19. We can remember how Africans experienced, for instance, Senegal’s $1 vaccine test kit; South-South cooperation as Cuba sent over 200 doctors to South Africa to help fight the virus; or the fact that Morocco’s pandemic response has been praised as one “for other countries to emulate”.Today, largely thanks to social media, previously marginalised voices now have a platform to express themselves, even if this is only to a certain extent for many (as such communities still face discrimination and silencing on many fronts), and it is important that these are taken into account when documenting histories of Covid-19.

Figure 3. GovernmentZA, Cuban Health Specialists arriving in South Africa

This our chance as historians not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, when we begin to write historiographies of this pandemic, and to break Eurocentric traditions of recording history. In recognising the global nature of the pandemic, we may begin to combat Western-centred interpretations of Covid-19, to include Africa in the narrative. In the first instance, we can collect stories for archives in African languages, rather than in English, which in many Anglophone African countries, remains the language of the educated elite. As Drayton and Motadel rightly argue, “if we are serious about global history, more training in languages, particularly non-Western ones, in an obvious priority.” Creating sources in African languages would allow for a greater diversity of pandemic experiences to be archived.

This could be supplemented by conducting oral history interviews around Africa: in a continent where illiteracy levels remain high, oral histories in African languages would circumvent global history’s bias towards educated, urban-based figures. In order to collect these successfully, leadership by – or partnership with – African historians is required, who know the languages and understand the cultural milieu in which the research would take place. Such collaboration would entail a complete subversion of current practices, which, more often than not, involve the exploitation by the Global North scholar of their Global South colleagues, with a mere footnote acknowledging their contribution.The field of global history still “dominated by the offspring of the Euro-American white upper middle class”, also has to make room for non-white, non-Western African historians. If we want to create a global history of the pandemic that reflects the world’s diversity as we know it today, a more inclusive discursive space is required. Let us not forget those voices that will not end up in national archives, and solely remember Western experiences of this historical moment that we are living through. Covid-19 is a global pandemic that has affected all continents, including Africa, and future history books and lessons will have to reflect that.

Anna Adima is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar at the University of York, where she is researching the history of women’s writing after independence in Uganda and Kenya. Anna is currently a visiting research student at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD is part of the Leverhulme-funded project, ‘Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s’. She tweets @anna_adima.

Cover image. “Geographica restituta per globi trientes” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

Figure 1. “Low Res Web Only Information and awareness is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Community Health Volunteers and some staff from Trócaire partner MMM in Kenya during briefing before going to the field. Photo : Victoria Nthenge” by Trocaire is licensed with CC BY 2.0

Figure 2. “Information and awareness is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here in Kenya, Clinical Health care workers are sensitising the community on COVID-19. Photo : Victoria Nthenge” by Trocaire is licensed with CC BY 2.0

Figure 3. “Cuban Health Specialists arriving in South Africa to curb the spread of COVID-19” by GovernmentZA is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0.

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