Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Until 2020, Green was nowhere on social media, where many of us historians have been participating in public debates and promoting our own works. In late 2021, I learned that while we were confined, Green had wrote and published The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality in July 2021. The book chronicled the horrible times we were experiencing. As a historian of the African diaspora who engages Green’s work, I could not ignore the book, even though my personal approach to the pandemic was to totally embrace the Covid-19 consensus, which the author dismantles in his book. Because of my own ignorance on the topic I was sceptical when I read the first edition of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality. Green had just published the amazing Fistful of Shells; I knew he should be onto something. Also, I could not disagree with the book’s main argument regarding the nefarious effects of lockdowns in the Global South, especially in Africa, and how these restrictions led to growing inequalities. I started following Green’s work on Collateral Global, a network led by a group of scholars aimed at understanding the impacts of Covid-19 on our societies. As part of this initiative, Green led a series of structured and unstructured interviews. Through these pandemic oral histories, Green has consciously or unconsciously created a rich collection of testimonies associated with the experiences lived during these tragic past three years. Many of these interviews feature African men and women scholars.
In the past three years, Green has been the only prominent academic historian in Europe and North America to persistently retrace and denounce the impacts of the global pandemic in Africa and the Global South and debate these impacts in the public sphere. As the pandemic started winding down, Green and journalist Thomas Fazi started preparing a new expanded edition of the The Covid Consensus. The almost 500-page The Covid Consensus: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor? A Critique from the Left is twice longer than the first one. More refined and detailed, the book benefits from a wider and more distanced perspective after three years from the global pandemic’s onset. Addressed to a wide audience, what Green and Fazi do in this book is to write a history of the present. And writing histories of the present are always challenging. Present events keep unfolding much faster than the historian’s pace. Sometimes, even if we are experiencing events only through the internet and television, we may be led to consider our opinions informed. But the historian of the present is not the ordinary observer of current events. The historian of the present walks on the thin sharpened blade of current events by both interweaving these events and connecting them to the distant past. Death is a taboo subject in Western societies. Therefore, assessing the death of hundreds of thousands of individuals in a book is both a courageous and a risky endeavour. In The Covid Consensus the authors take this task in their hands. And they place the impacts of the anti-Covid-19 measures on the African continent at the centre of their analysis.
The first edition of the The Covid Consensus had just four chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion, whereas the new one, much longer, is divided into two parts comprising nine chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. The first part establishes a documented account of the pandemic between the end of 2019 and late 2021 with the rise of the Omicron variant. The second part assesses the impacts of the restrictive measures taken by governments worldwide to contain the pandemic over the three past years. The first part covers the rise of Covid-19 in China in 2019. The authors discuss the events as they unfolded in the confusion of early 2020. The authors also discuss the possible origins of the virus, including a lab origin. Although acknowledging that this hypothesis has been dismissed by many officials and scientists, Green and Fazi emphasize that because of the persistent lack of transparency, speculations persist, and a conclusive answer is still to be produced. The authors also address how in China and the United States official authorities attempted to control the information associated with the rise of the pandemic. This is when the collaboration between a historian and a journalist works at its best. Here, Green and Fazi discuss the definition of pandemic, by showing how this definition is not only frozen in time but indeed changed over the very recent period.
Green and Fazi also compare the Covid-19 pandemic with other recent epidemics and pandemics including the Ebola pandemic and the 2009 H1N1 (known as swine flu) pandemic, as well as the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the viruses associated with them. The book goes on discussing the rise of massive lockdowns in China that quickly expanded in lighter versions to various countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and even in Africa. One of the central contributions of the book is examining how the pandemic evolved in Africa. The authors show the rise of how lockdown measures were imposed on several countries even though infections, hospitalizations, and deaths were expected to be much lower in Africa than in Europe and the Americas, especially because the median age of the continent was 19.8 in 2019, and the population at major risk were the elderly and immunocompromised individuals. The reproduction of these restrictive measures in Africa, the authors argue, became one of the main pillars of the Covid-19 consensus. These measures prevented men and women from freely circulating in the streets to gain their livelihoods. Likewise, shutting down schools for months in African countries where there was no infrastructure to provide online teaching had an even more dramatic impact on children and youth. Green and Fazi discuss the different responses of various African countries to these measures. Here, the authors argue that lockdowns were basically imposed by the World Health Organization. These measures, they contend, triggered death, and led to global socio-economic devastation. Then the remedy to the newly created chaos was providing African countries with loans from institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and thus reigniting the cycle of debt and dependency.
Overall, the book argues that the implementation of these restrictive measures such as lockdowns, but also mandatory vaccines and mask mandates, weakened democracies and attacked civil liberties in Europe and North America. The authors also address contentious topics such as the experiments with hydroxychloroquine that became known as Trump’s drug, to create preventive treatments. Still, this is not a selective account. Therefore, the authors revisit the timeline associated with the use of this drug, its approval, retraction, and debates raised by scientific articles. As far as Africa is concerned, medical doctors employed this low-cost drug, used to treat malaria, to treat Covid-19 cases, when access to vaccines and effective treatment did not exist.
When examining the early months of the pandemic, the book also emphasizes the connection between the lack of preventive and early treatments, and the inexistence of vaccines, and the implementation of lockdowns, as measures of social distance became the only alternative at hand. Here the historian’s work is at its best by showing how the Covid-19 pandemic led to the rise of unparalleled rules, such as counting every PCR positive test as a Covid-19 case, regardless of the patient being symptomatic or asymptomatic. As a result, the authors conclude that in the early months of the pandemic the rise of new “cases” was probably overestimated and “virtually meaningless” (p. 121). But if that was the case, how to explain the large number of hospitalizations and deaths? Providing examples from different countries such as Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States, the authors also contend that the counting was flawed because anyone admitted to the hospital and “who had recently tested positive” was considered a Covid-19 patient, regardless of “the actual reason for which they were being admitted” (122). All individuals admitted to a hospital during the pandemic were tested for Covid-19. Ultimately, according to this reasoning the number of cases among children who were hospitalized contributed to overestimating the impact of the virus and the disease on children. Likewise, everyone who died having tested positive for Covid-19 regardless of other causes was counted as a Covid-19 death. In some cases, high mortality was caused by overcrowded hospitals. Still, despite reporting these debates, the authors acknowledge that they are not qualified to judge these methods, even though several specialists challenged the case counting methodology.
Here, even though this is a book intended for wide audiences, the authors do a meticulous job in exploring all debates related to vaccines and treatments against Covid-19, including those that have been labelled as contentious and part of conspiracy theories. The authors also explore in detail the early Western efforts to create vaccines, including the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in funding these efforts, and how the public discourse became one that lockdowns were necessary until vaccines were approved and available to all. However, this is again where another contradiction emerges. African countries should follow the lockdown measures at the same time as Western rich nations, despite their (younger) population profiles, and even though livelihoods highly depend on the informal economy that occurs in the public space of urban and rural areas. Yet, Covid-19 vaccines were not available for African countries. Lockdowns and Covid-19-oriented policies in Africa not only increased malnutrition and unemployment but also stopped vaccinations against other deadly diseases such as measles and polio that reemerged in the continent. Indeed, this same trend is also visible in other countries such as India, Afghanistan, and even Brazil.
Because the new edition of The Covid Consensus covers too much and because the pandemic and its afterlives are still unfolding, sometimes some statements that would require explanation are not fully expanded. For example, the low mortality numbers in China are stated but not challenged. Sometimes, there are claims about possible benefits of preventive treatments and measures to avoid Covid-19, but it seems that such measures would require long term changes in populations’ lifestyles, an option that was not at hand when the pandemic started. Under all these issues also underlies the deep problem of privatization of the health system, and how health insurance and pharmaceutical companies already make immense profits in normal times, and even more during the pandemic. Yet, none of these problems are really at the heart of the African context, which this book addresses. Some commentators and scholars may also disagree with some claims made in the book as the sources are not always scientific articles but rather journalism pieces. But the work of the historian of the present is not to translate the scientific literature to the public, but rather to explore how these studies and the debates around these studies evolved in daily life as they were translated to the public in newspapers and social media, which is why the collaboration between a historian and a journalist is the perfect match to write a history of the present.
A genealogy of the Covid-19 pandemic, this book is an exemplary history of the present that will survive the end of the current crisis. Still, the most important immediate contribution of this book is showing how the response to the pandemic had a devastating impact on the poor populations of rich countries, but especially how lockdowns impacted the African continent and increased already existing world inequalities. Here it is important to highlight that despite the importance of these two contributions, most historians, including historians of Africa, the Atlantic slave trade, and slavery refuse to engage these conversations in the public sphere. There are several reasons why this engagement did not occur both in Europe and North America. In general, many academics in social sciences and the humanities embraced the slogan “follow the science,” trusted vaccines, wore masks, and accepted imposed social restriction measures, even when we witnessed how official recommendations regarding mask-wearing, public gatherings, testing, and the promised protection provided by vaccines changed almost on a bi-weekly basis between March 2020 and August 2022. Few academics challenged school closures and the negative impacts of social restrictions on the underprivileged population and impoverished countries.
Some academics may have feared engaging these debates because in the United States and Brazil far-right groups of Trump and Bolsonaro supporters embraced anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests. Indeed, on social media, there is rarely a place for nuance. People do not read or look for context. Instead, the common reaction is to immediately take sides. Therefore, any intervention in debates involving death in a period when people are living in distress is very dangerous. But after the defeat of Donald Trump in November 2020, growing vaccination rates, creation of new treatments, and the downfall of Jair Bolsonaro in 2022, there is no justification to avoid discussing the impacts caused by these mitigation measures. The lack of academic engagement in the debate brought about by The Covid Consensus also reflects other important matters. First, historians still resist to engage issues related to the present. It has been initially that way with other debates such as taking down monuments and reparations for slavery. Second, and more importantly, many Western academics ignore African history, current events in the African continent, and therefore do not really care about the impacts of the past three years restrictive measures on Africa. Regardless of disagreeing with or supporting the facts, claims, and arguments made in Green and Fazi’s book, we have here an outstanding history of the present, one that no other historian or journalist has written up to this day. The book is also the only narrative history of the Covid-19 pandemic and the negative impacts that indiscriminate lockdowns had on the lives of women, children, elders, and the global poor. If the historian’s craft is to study the past, to understand the present and improve the future, an open academic and public debate about the past three pandemic years, the death trail it left behind, and the failure of the measures taken to mitigate these deaths is necessary to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Green and Fazi started it. And I must only hope that others will follow the lead.