The first recorded cases of Covid-19 in South Africa and Kenya in March 2020 sparked a whirlwind of tweets reflecting the fears and concerns of some people about the virus and bringing other ingrained prejudices to the surface.
“Imagine dying from a foreign disease when you don’t even have a passport #COVID19SouthAfrica,” one user tweeted.
“So you’re saying China produces fakes. but u [you] Trust the coronavirus,” tweeted another.
Those tweets, along with thousands of others, became part of a study of Twitter conversations in South Africa and Kenya in the early days of the pandemic, which highlighted lingering post-colonial themes of race and power.
According to the study, published this month in the Journal of African Media Studies: “…the Covid-19 pandemic sparked strong racial fears in both South Africa and Kenya…Both the Chinese in Kenya and the white communities in South Africa were blamed for having brought them with them through their travel escapades in the first cases of Covid-19.”
Covid-19 has been dubbed the “disease of the rich” and one of privilege
The study argues that in these countries, both former British colonies, Twitter has fueled divisions in conversations held both online and offline about power and racist politics, hoarding, “othering” and classicism. It also argues that “anger at white communities and powerful and privileged classes can be read as an exhaustion of existing postcolonial problems”.
The study was co-authored by Job Mwaura, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town, and Ufuoma Akpojivi from the University of the Witwatersrand. In an interview with Quartz, Mwaura said they specifically focused on Kenya and South Africa because of their “vibrant social media presence,” which allowed conversations to be “organic” and “lighthearted.”
He also spoke about the freedom of speech in those countries compared to other African countries, including Nigeria and Uganda, which had banned popular social media platforms during the pandemic.
Imagine dying from a foreign disease when you don’t even have a passport.
The study shows that racist conversations online were particularly charged in South Africa because the government says the first case of Covid-19 was brought in by a white South African who had traveled back from Europe.
A South African user tweeted at the time: “A white man decided to go to Europe and came back to South Africa sick. Now everyone has to suffer because of him.”
Meanwhile, a plane from China that landed in Nairobi on February 26, 2020, fueled fears that passengers on board may have brought the first cases of the virus to Kenya.
“I was wondering how a normal government that cares about its citizens could allow the Chinese plane to land on JKIA [Jomo Kenyatta International Airport]then I realized people in government are using imported brains from China…” tweeted one Kenyan user.
The report also says that the current China-Africa relationship, while not built on colonial history, is characterized by Chinese power in infrastructure projects and the import of consumer goods across the continent “can be interpreted as a post-colonial issue of domination.”
Online bias reflects offline bias
Mwaura said these feelings are reflected in public spaces both online and offline.
“There is a very fine line between offline conversations and online conversations – they influence each other. The issue of race and othering is very ingrained, and our analysis says a lot about the kind of racial issues that are emerging in the post-colonial states.”
“Panic buying” was another phenomenon, with people hoarding toilet paper, groceries, and other essentials, mirroring similarly angry discussions of power, race, and class online. “Although it cannot be proven that only white communities in South Africa have engaged in panic buying, Twitter talk has suggested that privileged white communities are the only ones who have participated in panic buying. In conversations on Twitter in Kenya, those who participated in hoarding were viewed as the selfish and ignorant middle class,” the study said.
Mawaura says the content and sentiment behind these tweets need to be viewed from multiple angles.
“I think government should address some of these issues of inequality and racial fears to reduce their impact on society.” He added that social media platforms also have a responsibility to “give people a free space to express themselves.” to say what they want, but with restrictions so that they do not violate other people’s rights and freedoms. ”
Mwaura plans to conduct further research and analysis of another data set of over 300,000 tweets from Kenya and South Africa after the Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO by South Africa in November. This incident led to a widely criticized spate of travel bans against many African countries, an act seen as unfairly punishing South Africa for reporting the variant.
“I’m almost certain that the issues of postcolonialism will come up when analyzing tweets about the Omicron variant,” he said.
As this study has shown, people in Africa and around the world can use social media to positively influence change or negatively reinforce and perpetuate divisions. But Mwaura says he still believes in the power of social media as a democratic asset.
“People have an opportunity to find harmony on digital media platforms,” he said. “I would see it as a ripple effect, so everything that’s happening in the offline spaces gets into the social media spaces… There’s a lot we can learn by focusing on ordinary conversations in digital media spaces, and we can.” into programs and strategies are very important and helpful.”
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