Liberals were embarrassed in September when the leader of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in New York, Chivona Newsome, slammed vaccine mandates as ‘racist’.
In many parts of the US, vaccine uptake has stalled among African-Americans and other ‘minority’ communities.
In New York itself, 70 per cent of black Americans aged 18-44 have not had the Covid vaccine.
There are many reasons for this, including higher levels of naturally acquired immunity among black New Yorkers than whites, as well as religious beliefs and long-standing mistrust of the state.
Fundamentally, as Newsome said about the pass system, ‘it’s not gonna be white men in suits on Wall Street who are gonna get stopped’.
The support of many liberals for vaccine mandates in the US – and their enthusiastic championing by Democrat President Joe Biden – is incomprehensible given the history of discrimination in Western nations.
Wherever discrimination based on physical attributes has been empowered by law in Western history, it has been accompanied by racialisation and discrimination – be that the different rules for black and white bus passengers in Alabama or the ‘pass laws’ that made it a legal right for white South Africans to be able to demand movement papers from non-whites.
It is unclear why liberals think that vaccine passports will be any different, and there certainly are no rational grounds for this belief.
In fact, the omens are clear that they are part of a wider system of medical infrastructure being brought in around vaccines that is highly discriminatory to Africans and people of African descent.
Vaccine mandates are already leading to massive discrimination globally when it comes to access to the Covid-19 vaccines. It is widely accepted that Covid-19 is a disease which is especially risky to older people, and the vulnerable.
Young people are at much less risk.
However, by forcing people not at risk of Covid-19 to take the jab to participate in daily life, even when they do not need it on health grounds, Western societies are hoarding vaccines and preventing their release to the old and infirm in places like Africa who are in greater need of protection.
If politicians like former British prime minister Gordon Brown really want to address what they call ‘vaccine apartheid’ – and the racism which underpins it – they could begin by opposing vaccine mandates as the key means through which Western states are hoarding vaccines.
The delivery of the Covid-19 jabs themselves has also led to a massive increase in systemic global discrimination.
If you are a Western politician wanting to ‘look tough’ on immigration, the Covid vaccine status certificate is just the job for you.
The hoarding of vaccines, and the lack of a well-organised global rollout, has meant that billions of people worldwide in poorer countries are barred from travel.
Even where they have been vaccinated with globally recognised jabs, the UK has stated that no one who has received such a jab in Africa or Latin America will be exempt from costly quarantine.
Once again, it is quite clear that as soon as systems of division are implemented through a vaccine status system, this will lead to global discrimination against Africans and people of African descent.
This is not some shocking discovery, but simply the continuation of processes of structural racism that Western liberals should be familiar with.
Moreover, it is also a continuity of a long process of the interconnection of medicine and colonialism – which is rarely discussed.
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the introduction of vaccine passports in London, UK, on May 29, 2021.
Nigerian authorities fought a decades-long legal battle against Pfizer, one of the companies behind the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, following the death of four local children in the 1990s who had been enrolled in ‘an illegal trial of an unregistered drug’ for meningitis by the drugs firm.
African history is littered with such examples, which, unsurprisingly, have fed conspiracies over vaccines and the origins of new infectious diseases.
In 1999, the British journalist Edward Hooper published the book The River, in which he argued – on the basis of an enormous amount of new research – that the HIV/Aids epidemic could be traced to experimental trials of oral polio vaccines conducted by American and Belgian scientists in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in the late 1950s.
What matters here is not so much whether Hooper was right or wrong, as Stanford University medical anthropologist Lochlann Jain pointed out in a recently published paper.
But the way in which medical ‘progress’ and vaccine development have long been connected to colonial power and systematic segregation and discrimination, which makes such ‘conspiracies’ possible in the first place.
As vaccine mandates and discrimination based on access to and supply of vaccines rolls out, it is now clear that the Covid-19 vaccination programme and mandates are likely to see a significant increase in discrimination both nationally and globally – a continuity of old patterns of medical colonialism.
The problem is not the development of new vaccines or technologies to monitor their implementation, but the ways in which these are manipulated by an existing system of deep inequity. Short of a complete overhaul of world institutions – which is unlikely to happen – the only way to fight the increase of this discrimination is to fight the mandates with every power at our disposal.
Toby Green is a professor of African history at King’s College, London, and the author of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality.
Follow him on Twitter, @toby00green