This year communities across the world seemed to simultaneously get the virtual memo that naming diseases after countries, cities and ethnic groups can have dire consequences for the country (or continent) in question, its economy and those that call said country home.
The World Health Organisation’s 2015 guidelines on the naming of new diseases aim to’minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.’ The guidelines dictate that new diseases should not be named after countries or cities due to these reasons.
Yet, while the name COVID-19 has swiftly been adopted by people across the world, replacing the problematic early names given to the disease, others such as the African Swine Fever which has reportedly resurfaced since it was first identified in the early 1900s haven’t received similar or equivalent makeovers, leading many to question why.
‘Unstoppable’ is how a May 27th article describes the ‘African’ Swine Fever.
The double standards apparent in the outrage around the naming of these diseases hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly by members of China’s African diaspora who, in seeing the way their host nation has been able to put an end to offensive names such as Chinese virus, now wonder when such standards will be applied to diseases tied to the African continent they call home.
It was living as an African in China and witnessing the swiftness with which the world adopted its new name for COVID-19 that encouraged Samantha Sibanda to start a campaign against the use of the word African Swine Fever. A move she hopes will produce the same results:
“Its about having a name that avoids stigmatisation of a country/group of people and also nothing that is attached to a geographical location/ individuals or animals. Now with just this reason it calls for the African Swine Fever name to be changed as it is stigmatising the African people and it is attached to a geographical location which is Africa and the people who are African.”, she explains.
Sibanda is no stranger to rallying support for African causes. Back in 2016, she led the movement to close an exhibition deemed racist by many for its images of Africans alongside wild animals.
“Students called me and brought the issue to me and I took it up, wrote a petition and together with the community we got enough signatures that caught the exhibitors attention who then invited us to go meet them.
When the invite came to actually go to Wuhan, most people decided they no longer wanted to be involved but Samantha pressed on. “People got scared they thought they will be deported as this was a provincial museum. So, I ended up going alone as I could not back down. I realised I had to do this for my community if we really wanted change
Samantha describes what she experienced once she reached Wuhan as both unforgettable and intimidating.
“The negotiations which lasted 2 full days drained me. I cried and its probably also the longest time I have ever spoken nonstop….I finally won the case and managed to bring back the positive results for our community. So, here I am deciding to do it one more time hoping the community won’t throw me under the bus again hahaha.”
Once again, her attention was drawn to this issue by others in the community who felt less able to push the cause but recognised its importance: “I received a phone call from a friend and he spoke to me passionately about this issue of this Swine Fever being called African Swine Fever. As he was speaking to me he then says I am telling you because you are an activist and I know you will do something about it”.
Looking further into the issue led her to question the quiet way in which the world has continued to use the term ‘African swine fever’
“I think the most important thing is to actually make them realise we see them. When they changed COVID what made them not change the rest of these names? Are they waiting for us to act for them to take the action? If it is the action, they were waiting for then this is it we are now acting and asking them to rename this swine fever”
She began by rallying others within the community, tying the use of the name ‘African’ swine fever to wider issues around the portrayal of Africa and Africanness:
“The Africa I know is beautiful, is kind, is rich, is respectful, is hard working, is intelligent, has values, has potential and it is us AFRICANS who can show them WHO WE ARE because all they have are fiction stories, tales, stereotypes. So, it is important to support the positive promotion of our people and our continent which is our home. Home is Home no matter where in the world we end up let’s not give up on HOME no matter how humble it is that humbleness shaped us it taught us our value even when we didn’t have we grew up in togetherness and that togetherness is needed to continue to create an environment that respects us.”
For Samantha and many others, the frustration at years of discrimination and negative portrayals of Africans have spurred this cause on.
“People have used us for their own benefit and we just let it slide. I am tired of going to the internet and all I see are these big organisations using pictures of African children to raise money that those children never see or get, people giving examples and likening of all bad things of this world with Africa. We have to change this no one will change this for us. We have to start somewhere and that somewhere is taking action not just complaining”
“It’s high time we told our own stories” she emphasizes, a nod to her belief that African media houses and public figures have a crucial role to play in this movement, and more generally in countering the narrative around Africa in China and beyond.
“Firstly, most people don’t even know there is an outbreak called African Swine Fever and secondly, we have to flood the media with our stories and show the world we as Africans we deserve the respect that seems to be given to others first and not us.”
Back in 2013, Samantha started Appreciate Africa Network with a similar goal in mind.
“Let’s create stories for our kids and their kids would be inspired to read about the continent and not arm people with stories that will continue to torture/embarrass our kids and their kids”, she speaks passionately.
While Africans from across the entire continent have been most vocal in demanding a name change, Samantha believes there should be more solidarity for African causes from people across the world.
“In as much as this seems to be an African problem, I also believe our generation is made up of global citizens who see themselves as part of a bigger community and should play a role in coming together to make the world a better place for all”
With the recent appetite for equality and justice spreading throughout the world, Samantha is more than aware that these issues run far deeper than just the naming of diseases but believes that taking this small but significant step, will help the tide change more permanently.
“I am just asking them to use the standard and reasoning they used [with COVID-19]… let it apply here as well.”
To find out more, visit : www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XIg6RLIg3M
Runako Celina is the co-founder of Black Livity China. She holds an MA in International Politics and African Studies from Peking University. She spent two years working for China's largest Digital TV platform broadcasting in African countries and currently lives and works in Beijing. During her time at Peking University, she sat on the committee for the Peking University Africa Think Tank.