Pulitzer Center grantees Jacob Kushner and Kang-Chun Cheng presented on public health mis- and disinformation at Davidson College in North Carolina in September 2023. In 2022, Cheng and Kushner reported from Morocco and the Western Sahara.
With the support of the Pulitzer Center, the pair reported for BBC Future and devex on why some North Africans saw COVID-19 public health guidelines and vaccination campaigns as a colonial conspiracy.
Western corporations and governments have long conducted drug and vaccine trials on vulnerable African populations, inconsistent with modern medical ethics. The COVID-19 vaccine, some feared, would not be different. Indeed, at the outset of the pandemic, two French doctors implied during a television interview that the first COVID-19 vaccine trials should be completed in Africa.
“Public health can be supremely conflated with contentious political situations,” said Cheng during the pair’s keynote presentation, “The Long Shadow of COVID-19 Myths,” at Davidson College.
“The West doesn’t have a monopoly on misinformation,” said Kushner.
Morocco’s vaccination rate of 63% led some to champion the religious monarchy’s public health messaging as a success. But it is likely much lower among people living in Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory administered by Morocco, where there is no public health information on the spread of COVID-19. The region is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s last colony,” where meticulously maintained public gardens abut crumbling homes.
Unvaccinated Sahrawis (people of the ethnic group native to Western Sahara) told Kushner and Cheng that “their hesitancy stems from the fact that Morocco’s politicians—not its doctors—have been at the forefront of the country’s vaccination campaign.” Some doctors, like Fatiha El Hilali, professor of immunology at Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy of Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, have begun crafting a counternarrative by making personal appeals and producing internet explainer videos.
“It was very informative and showed just how impactful not just COVID was to our world, but the conflicts of politics that rose from it,” said one student after the keynote presentation.
While on campus, Kushner and Cheng also visited classes and ate dinner with students who are part of Davidson’s Dean Rusk International Studies Program.
When they visited “True Stories,” a creative nonfiction class, Cheng and Kushner advised students to be as transparent as possible in their reporting, meet sources with compassion, and not shy away from hard questions. They also discussed how to deal with surveillance, navigate interviews about trauma, and balance personal voice with fact-based and interview content.
The Pulitzer Center arranges two journalist visits each semester, in addition to a Reporting Fellowship for Campus Consortium Partners like Davidson College. You can read more about the Campus Consortium program here.