Monkeypox Western media coverage rooted in racism

The Herald

At least 100 monkeypox cases have been reported in 12 countries across Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia since the World Health Organisation (WHO) started receiving reports of infections on May 13.

Sadly, in the Western media, the face of the outbreak is distinctly black and African.

Across all major international news outlets like Reuters, BBC, CNN, Sky News and even ABC News, decades old images of black people are being used to illustrate stories and social media posts about the spread of monkeypox.

Isn’t this the time for the African media to desist from unwittingly aiding this bad reporting by being silent when it is clear that the Western media’s coverage of the monkeypox disease is rooted in racism?

Yes, we are aware that over the years the Western media set the agenda and tenor of what makes news and how it is reported across the world including the slant, the pitch and how it is played out.

But I think the time has come for the African media to stop mimicking what the Western media puts out about the continent, the world and us.

We are aware that WHO says monkeypox, which has no current treatment, is primarily found in West and Central Africa, but the truth is that so far its spread has been reported in places that are not endemic for the virus.

If objective is the cardinal principle of fair and balanced journalism, the pictorial reference of the disease must reflect the inhabitants of the geographical location of where it has been reported.

On May 2, American broadcaster, ABC, conveyed in a shocking tone its first monkeypox story with an explainer illustrated with an electron microscope graphic showing cells. “For the first time, the disease appears to be spreading among people who didn’t travel to Africa,” ABC said.

In at least three articles that followed the first reportage, ABC News had a picture of the back of a black person’s hands with rashes and swollen lymph nodes.

The image’s caption indicated that it was taken in 1997 by the US Centre for Disease Control during a monkeypox outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Not to be outdone, a BBC’s May 22 article, which does not mention an African country as one the places where monkeypox cases have surfaced, leads with a black man’s torso showing open sores. This sort of reporting reflects long held stereotypes of colonial othering.

Angered by this sort of reporting, the Foreign Press Association of Kenya last week issued a statement condemning Western media’s coverage of the monkeypox outbreak.

“We condemn the perpetuation of this negative stereotype that assigns calamity to the African race and privilege and immunity to other races,” the association’s statement reads.

It further questioned the convenience of using images of black people to tell the world how Europe and America are reeling from the outbreak of monkeypox.

It definitely shows that the Western media is in the business of “preserving White purity” through “Black criminality or culpability.”

Western media have been portraying monkeypox as a disease affecting Africans only

Surely this is the time for African journalists to unite in condemning the use of stock images bearing dark/black and African skin complexion to depict an outbreak of disease in the United Kingdom and North America.

We owe it to future generations to challenge and unwrite these negative portrayals of black people in the Western media.

This brazen negative portrayal of black people ties into the broader grievances of questionable Western media representation of Africa. There is a tendency to frame the continent as always diseased or battling some disaster.

To an average Westerner, Africa is just one country where everybody knows everybody. In fact, that is the impression one gets from the size of Africa on an average world map.

Although Africa is said to be the second largest continent in the world and the most variegated, it looks so small on the world map in comparison to other continents. This can be traced to the colonial construct that sought to make the metropolitan powers look bigger than the colonies controlled.

Just like the attempt to project Africa as one country and small in size, the narrative constructed by the media around epidemics is one of tacit blame and stigma laced with brute racism.

Monkeypox is currently the most searched query on Google, and what immediately comes out are pictures of black patients mostly from central and western Africa.

It is not a valid defence to say that since monkeypox is endemic to some regions in Africa, it automatically means that Google would have stock images of people from those regions.

It just doesn’t make sense. If the outbreak is in Europe or America, why not take images from the ground, documenting the condition of those in hospitals?

African journalists, writers and intellectuals are duty bound to respond to the disgraceful narratives of Europeans by reconstructing and re-affirming the image of Africa’s past to the rest of the world, away from the misrepresentations peddled by the BBC, CNN, ABC News or Reuters.

We must never get fatigued from disseminating anti-conquests narratives that projected us as lesser beings in dire need of civilisation.

Colonialism was presented as an extension of civilisation, which ideologically justified the self-ascribed superiority of the European Western world over the non-Western world.

As journalists, intellectuals, writers and even political players, we need to continuously write back to the empire to demystify and dispel misrepresentations about us as people.

These misrepresentations currently inform the European world-view or perspective about Africans. It appears nothing has changed since they were fed with “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad way back in 1899.

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