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What makes us care? Which lives matter more?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, forever. As of 7 June, more than 6 million people globally had been infected and over 400,000 had sadly lost their lives. And it’s not over yet. New infections continue to occur and while these have peaked and begun to decrease in some countries, the numbers continue to increase in others and may become the new epicentres of the disease. Life as we knew it came to an abrupt standstill. Little pleasures like sharing a glass of wine with a friend at a bar after a hard day at work became distant memories, rare treats. Appreciation for school teachers is at an all-time high as those with children battle with home-schooling. Long supermarket queues, panic-driven stock-piling and empty shelves sceh ared us. Holidays were cancelled. At the same time, we were losing loved ones. Mothers, sisters, fathers, uncles, aunts, friends, co-workers, nurses, doctors, hospital and frontline staff; people from all walks of life succumbed to Covid-19. In many cases, families could not be present, and loved ones faced their end … alone. And even in death, for many, there was no dignity as the sheer numbers of the deceased overwhelmed funeral service providers. Our world will not be the same again.

THE GLOBAL RESPONSE
to the pandemic has been unprecedented. As a scientific researcher with a strong interest in vaccines, I have been overwhelmed at the determination and speed with which researchers all over the world have mobilized to develop not only vaccines, but also diagnostic tests and therapeutic agents. As of 7 June, 2020, a Covid-vaccine tracker reported that scientists were working on 139 vaccines, with 18 already in clinical trials, while 242 drugs were under investigation, with 154 in clinical trials. Although experts predict that only a handful of these will survive the so-called VALLEY OF DEATH in vaccine and drug development, the sheer effort is admirable. The mobilisation of funds for Covid-19 research has also been unprecedented. Data compiled by Devex indicates that between 1 Jan and 31 May, 2020,
$ 17.1 trillion has been announced in the fight against Covid-19 through programs, grants, tenders and open opportunities. We are talking trillions: 000, 000, 000, 000, not billions — 000,000,000 and certainly not millions — 000,000! Why does this shock me? Should you be shocked? As an African female scientist, my mind takes me to a report in Nature I read last year: funding for “Neglected Tropical Diseases” was at an ALL-TIME HIGH at just over $ 3.5 billion in 2017. My favourite disease
— well, the one that I am determined to eliminate — is not considered neglected. Along with HIV and tuberculosis, we (malaria) received
$ 2.5 billion of the investments that same year. Loads of cash. We should be grateful. And we are. It’s our problem, right?

So, lets REFLECT ON MALARIA.
Let’s imagine an African child, called Among’in, was born healthy and strong in a rural village in Teso — The Iteso (or people of Teso) are Nilo hamites whose homeland spans Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya. Among’in’s parents were rural small-scale farmers, making just enough to keep their family going. When Among’in was 10 months old, tragedy struck. Long story short, she contracted malaria. Unfortunately, the disease was severe, and in the space of a week, she was no longer a crawling bubbly infant, beginning to reach to stand. She could no longer sit without support, had unprovoked recurrent convulsions daily, and never strove to stand again, never walked, never talked.

This was despite getting the best treatment available locally. This story plays out over and over. Before I had (and lost) my own infants … I worked on the shop floor as a junior doctor, and did my best to take this in my stride. I and others on the shift watched many families rolled up their children who unfortunately passed on in our hands in the familiar KANGA (a type of African print clothing) and walk away with that blank look in their eyes. I can’t do it anymore. I am more comfortable working in the laboratory … I can always restart a malaria parasite culture that “dies” in my hands. Loved ones never come back. I will make vaccines instead. Does Among’in’s life matter?

I could not end this peace without showing empathy for #BLACK LIVES MATTER. The brutal killing of George Floyd captured on camera in broad daylight. It’s gone “viral” — an expression I use with care during the current pandemic. Why is the world up in arms (protests)? As a black African scientist who has lived outside America all my life, I cannot pretend to begin to understand the depth of the pain many black people in America are experiencing in this historic moment. The global response says to me that this feeling of injustice is shared by black people all over the world. I speak for myself when I say that I see racism against black people in my day-to-day life. I am well-travelled, well-educated, articulate, live in a nice neighbourhood, work internationally … you name it … I see it everywhere … Sometimes it is really subtle … sometimes it’s blatant. It is REAL. I go shopping in the supermarket, I am trailed by security, you say to me … Among’in … it is because black people steal … here are the statistics … these are facts … I say to you … what puts people like me in the position where our only option is to steal? Let us begin to have the conversations about root causes rather than show force against symptoms. George Floyd’s life mattered.

WHAT REALLY MAKES US CARE?
As long as it is not my child that has died of malaria, or been unjustly killed in broad daylight, I will finish reading this piece and return to my busy schedule. As long as my holidays are not affected, my income is secure, I will finish reading this piece and think, oh — that is sad. I will continue with MY life.

I am BLACK. I am Among’in. Our lives matter.

 

FAITH OSIER is a professor of Malaria Immunology and currently based at the Centre for Infectious Diseases at Heidelberg University Hospital