Coronavirus: The Colonial Legacy in Global Health

Paakhi Bhatnagar is a Second Year International Relations student at King’s College London. She is the Editor-in-Chief of IR Today and the Copy Editor for Strife Journal. She also writes for London Student as the City News Editor. 

The past month has witnessed a pandemic in global health: the discourse around the coronavirus. Gaining traction in January, the disease was initially reported to the World Health Organization in late December 2019 with reports of strikingly large numbers of pneumonia cases originating from Wuhan city in China. This disease was categorized as a ‘coronavirus’ and took the media by storm, generating hysteria not only in China, but more so in Hong Kong, other neighboring countries, and Europe.

Coronavirus has now been formally renamed Covid-19. It has resulted in the death of over 75,000 people in mainland China alone, with instances of cases being reported in France, Germany, and the United States among others. But this disease has more implications for the politics of global health than what meets the eye.

Coloniality in Global Health

Global Health was born out of Tropical Health – a certain branch of science that studies diseases endemic to tropical and subtropical areas – and gained popularity during colonialism. It allowed for the conception of rudimentary biological warfare ranging from experimental testing on indigenous populations to the distribution of small-pox infected blankets to the Native population in North America. This calculated elimination of minority populations and their practices is still reflective in the contemporary response to Covid-19: instigating racism and cultural supremacy.

There are certain social and economic determinants that shape our understanding of how we frame the conception of health and disease. Diseases originating in the Global South are much more likely to be responded to with frenzy and discursive racism as can be seen in the case of HIV in Africa and now Covid-19 in China. The Global South is also seen as an arena where the containment of such epidemics cannot be supported due to a lack of funding or corrupt governance. For a large part, aid for development to the Global South comes attached with policies that bring in some disproportionate benefits for the Global North. The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects for Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is a blatant example of this. It impedes the acquisition and development of pharmaceutical technologies in the Global South to make the region inherently dependent on the Global North. As a result, there is an embedding of the White Savior Complex not only in terms of economic relations, but also in the development of health policies.

Racialization of disease: discourse around ‘hysteria’ and ‘help’

The outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan highlighted the underdevelopment of the Chinese healthcare system. Although China’s healthcare system has improved significantly since the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002, it still lags in adequate resources to tackle health emergencies. This problem has manifested in a lack of trust in the government owned healthcare centers within – and outside – China.

Although criticism on China’s healthcare system seems ubiquitous, there is distinctly more international hysteria than help on this issue. Wuhan’s appeal to the WHO to raise 600 million dollars to help contain the epidemic was met by Trump’s nationalist, fiscal policy to cut state funding to the WHO by 50 percent.

Moreover, there has been racialized press coverage fostered by the media’s tendency to sensationalize existing prejudices in order to exploit online readership. Western dominance in media has facilitated the creation of a structure where capitalizing off historic rivalries – such as US-China relations – have become predominant. It has also exacerbated Western skepticism towards China’s increasingly unreliable transparencies during epidemics, perpetuating a colonial zeitgeist. The most immediate and tangible aftermath of racialization of diseases can be seen in the blatant racism against East Asians surging in Europe as well as increasing hostilities between mainlanders and Hongkongers.

Can Global Health be Decolonized?

Decolonizing a discipline that flourished during colonialism is a complex but necessary project: knowledge disseminated from and, monopolized by the West undermines certain traditions or cultures of the East. It can be seen in the demonization of certain Chinese foods (such as MSG, bat soup etc.) which creates a discourse of western cultural supremacy. The Covid-19 virus and the subsequent response from the international community highlighted the intricately colonial nature of Global Health. Perhaps a first step would be to understand and deconstruct these colonial patterns of knowledge in Global Health studies.





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