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Disease and Power: Teachings from Africa (DAPTA)

The starting point of this project is that recent experiences of disease and epidemics in Africa, including Ebola, HIV/AIDS, Covid-19, and other diseases both endemic and epidemic, demand a response from the contemporary world in the same way that the French Revolution demanded a response from social and political theorists and philosophers in the following years. The experience disease in African contexts highlights features of the epistemic global order: the way that science and policy, knowledge and power, interact in the contemporary world. These features include familiar negative ones, such as the prioritisation of the interests of powerful nations and persons, and neglect of the interests of poor and voiceless. But it also includes positive themes that are often hidden in the narrative of victimhood that often accompanies discussions of Africa, outside Africa: themes of resourcefulness, and disease management skills that often surpass those elsewhere.

In December 2022, a team drawn from across Africa will meet to co-create an interdisciplinary project which will effect a sea-change in how we understand the relationship between knowledge and power. The project will use the experience of disease on the African continent as a means to better understand how science and policy interact in shaping priorities and response frameworks that affect human health. These experiences in different parts of Africa are a window into global epistemic power relations, or a lever to open up new opportunities for understanding them.

A number of epidemics have highlighted the importance of strategies that respect local traditions and beliefs, that engage with local priorities, and that recognise and utilise existing techniques and expertise in managing disease. In particular, there was widespread recognition in the wake of HIV and of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that engagement was necessary. It is far from clear that these lessons were applied in the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of Africa experienced a very different pandemic from the one that is most widely reported in academic journals and the media. Age, poverty, overcrowding, disease, and local political and financial interests interacted in many parts of the continent in ways of which the powerful parts of the world were, and remain, completely unaware. This is a lacuna that must be filled, not merely for better responses to future pandemics, but for proper attention to current health challenges.

The approach of this project is not to treat Africa as an object of study, nor a site from which to extract intellectual resources. Rather, the project is intended as a vehicle for African perspectives to shape the conceptual and practical frameworks that affect health, including pandemic responses, but not limited to these. It is only by playing a role in shaping conceptual frameworks that the interests of a region or group can be properly built into those frameworks.

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