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In 2016, South African learner Zulaikha Patel argued that a school rule requiring hair to be neat was racist. Even though the rule applied equally to all learners regardless of race, public opinion swung behind Patel: a rule that imposed a disproportionate burden on Black learners was racist even if it applied equally to all.

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Many hands showing diversity of race

The school suspended the rule. This paper argues that global lockdowns in the first half of 2020 were racist in the same way. The paper focuses on Africa.

The first part of the argument is that the strategy of “suppression” had its origins in modelling that was presented, by scientists, so as to make just one option feasible, with a deliberately global reach but without regard for differences in local context. The resulting recommendations were amplified globally by the World Health Organisation, again without regard for context. A confluence of international factors placed pressure on African states to comply, and local political and financial interests (which were part of the disregarded context) tended to be served by doing so.

The paper further argues that suppression was an inappropriate strategy for most African contexts, where no work and no trade often means no food, and states are unable to mitigate this. At the same time, the potential benefit of the policy was small, in an environment where: the majority of the population is teenage or younger (median age 19.7); other threats to life are commonly more serious; overcrowding commonly makes social distancing impossible; health systems are commonly inaccessible; and where, for the foregoing reasons, compliance was never on the cards.

When a policy originates in Europe and has disproportionate negative effect in Africa, it is impossible to ignore racial dynamics: the very concept of race is historically connected to that continent and the justification of its colonisation. “Black” is a colonial vestige that does not do justice to the ethnic diversity in Africa. Yet it can be legitimately used as Zulaikha Patel used it: for purpose of internal critique, and as an adjunct identity that does not negate other identities. Suppression strategies included regulatory packages forming a trope that became known as “lockdown”, which, like the neat hair rule at the South African school, was widely implemented without regard for the disproportionate negative effect on, inter alia, Black people. Therefore lockdown was racist.


Speaker Biography

Alex Broadbent is Professor of Philosophy of Science at Durham University and co-Director of the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society. He is also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. He is author of three monographs including Philosophy of Medicine (2019) and Philosophy of Epidemiology (2013). His research concerns: the philosophy of epidemiology, medicine, and public health; causation and causal inference in philosophy, epidemiology and law; counterfactuals; prediction; the decolonization of medicine and health; and the use of epidemiological and statistical evidence in law. He is Editor in Chief of the journal Philosophy of Medicine, and Editorial Board member of Environmental Health, Legal Theory, Global Epidemiology, and Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. He is an Associate Member of Millennium Chambers, of The Barrister Network, London.