Was lockdown racist? Lecture in Princeton Center for Human Values, Boston SPH

Delighted to be giving a talk called “Was lockdown racist?” at the Princeton Centre for Human Values (2 Nov) and the Boston School of Public Health’s Department of Global Health (7 Nov).

Princeton: 2 Nov @ 4.30pm, Center for Human Values

Boston SPH: 7 Nov @ 1pm, Dept of Global Health


In 2016, South African learner Zulaikha Patel argued that a school rule requiring hair to be neat was racist, despite applying equally to pupils of all races. This paper argues that suppression strategies deployed against Covid-19, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, were racist in the same way. The suppression strategy was motivated by science done in traditional seats of colonial power. Local factors shaped (as they normally do) both the methods used and the recommendations arrived at. These did not adequately consider the situation of many people globally living in various contexts of poverty: including on those in Africa. Notwithstanding, the recommendations were promulgated by the World Health Organisation and others, with no regard for local context. Feasibility of implementing “lockdowns” in breadline conditions, effectiveness in overcrowded conditions, local priorities, and the age of the population (in Africa, median 19.7) were not contemplated. Local political and financial interests were aligned with this neglect, and local scientific capacity was in any case lacking. When a regulatory package is implemented in an African country with high costs and low benefits, and originates in a strategy conceived in Europe and promulgated by European-based international organisations, it is impossible to ignore racial dynamics. I show that the trope of “lockdown” as enacted for Covid is a central difference between the responses to Covid and other epidemics in Africa, and I show that one cannot adequately explain this contrast without reference to race. Therefore lockdown was racist.

Was lockdown racist?

Delighted to be giving a new talk this week in Cambridge and Utrecht.

Tuesday 17 May, 2.30pm BST: Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, Newnham College

Friday 20 May, 16.15 CET: Conference, Covid-19 and Public Policy, Utrecht University


In 2016, South African learner Zulaikha Patel argued that a school rule requiring hair to be neat was racist. Even though the rule applied equally to everyone, public opinion swung behind Patel: a rule that imposed a disproportionate burden on Black learners could be racist even if it applied equally to all. The school suspended the rule. Basing itself on this case, this paper argues that global lockdowns in the first half of 2020 were racist. The paper focuses on Africa, arguing first that the lockdown strategy of implementing stringent stay-at-home regulations was externally imposed upon Africa, tracing the origins of this policy to the way that modelling results were presented so as to make just one option feasible. The resulting recommendations were promulgated globally by the World Health Organisation, and geopolitical power relations placed huge pressures on African states to comply. Next, the paper argues that locking down placed a disproportionate burden on Africa, whose population is the poorest in the world and for whom no work often means no food. At the same time, the potential benefit of the policy was small. With a median age of 19.7, much of the population was just too young for Covid ever to be a serious public health problem, and by the same token other threats to life compete for attention. Slum-dwellers cannot reduce their social contact by 75%, which is the figure used in the model upon which the recommendations were based. Most states in the region are unable to afford or implement meaningful food or grant schemes to compensate. Many African countries have no ventilators and low access to health care, so protecting the healthcare system was not a meaningful goal. And the strategy of locking down until a vaccine was available could never have been credible in a region where millions of children die annually from diseases treatable by penicillin. Where a policy originates in Europe and has disproportionate negative effect in Africa, it is impossible to ignore racial dynamics. “Black” is a colonial vestige that does not do justice to the ethnic diversity in Africa. Yet it can be legitimately used as Patel used it: for purpose of internal critique, and as an adjunct identity that does not negate other identities. Lockdown had a disproportionate negative effect on a very large number of Black people, and it was externally imposed. Therefore lockdown was racist.