In the 1990s, for instance, 11 children died in Nigeria while others suffered hearing loss, blindness and brain damage after the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer gave them experimental antibiotics against meningitis. Pfizer maintained for years that it was meningitis, not the drug, that caused the deaths and disabilities. In 2011, the company paid compensation to four families as part of an out-of-court settlement.
In another example from 1994, the US and the UK tested HIV drugs on 17,000 women in Zimbabwe to see if they could prevent the virus from spreading to their children, but the trials were later regarded to have been unethical. Half of the women were put into a control group where they received a placebo, something which did not occur in trials in the US, meaning “hundreds of infants” needlessly contracted HIV from their mothers, according to an assessment of the trial published three years later.
This history of Western medical experimentation on Africans is part of the reason why the French doctors’ statements were especially offensive in Morocco, says Mourad Elajouti, head of the Moroccan Lawyer’s Club. Morocco was a French colony until 1956 and alongside Arabic and Berber, French is still used by the government and some professional circles. It is also used on the news, meaning when the video went viral it needed no translation: millions of Moroccans immediately understood its racist undertones.
“People were shocked when they heard this, because it was coming from a medical authority,” says Elajouti. “And people were afraid of the vaccine because of it.”
What made the doctors’ statements so influential is that they were scientists working for respected institutions in France, says Elajouti. Their comments may have discouraged Moroccans from getting a vaccine, he says, although drawing a direct link between them and incidents of vaccine hesitancy is tricky.
The video did make its mark among Elajouti’s own family though, he says. “My mother is anti-vaccine,” he says. The video “made her afraid of taking [it] because she thinks these people want to test this on Africans, and only if they have good results they will [then] use it on Europeans”.
The Moroccan government has also worked hard with an effective campaign to persuade people to be immunised against Covid-19.
“At first there was a lot of hesitance,” says Rachid Ait Addi, an epidemiologist at Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco. “But when you see your colleague in work who got the first shot and the second shot and he says he’s safe, then you go to get it, too.”
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