“The Truth Is Not Known”: COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy as a Failure of Biomedicine’s Moral Legitimacy in Zambia

This article is part of the series:

Over the course of the last several months, a series of chilling videos have been shared across Zambian social media, purporting to link COVID-19 vaccines with a global plot to reduce the world’s population through the mass murder of Africans. Such videos are easily framed within the Western folk category of the “conspiracy theory,” and in a literal sense the videos certainly do aim to reveal a conspiracy: to murder Africans. The problem with the framing of the “conspiracy theory,” however, is that it implies that the very idea that there might be a conspiracy is the result of a kind of primordial irrationality whose epistemological bases bear no serious consideration. In this piece I do the opposite: taking seriously my Zambian friends and interlocutors as savvy consumers and analyzers of global information, I examine the different epistemological justifications that lead them and I to arrive at such different truth claims. Tabling for a moment a discussion of “the truth of the matter,” I suggest that our vastly different experiences of and stories about moral legitimacy form the basis for our different forms of epistemological justification.

Zambia is currently experiencing its third wave of COVID-19 infections, with almost 200,000 confirmed cases and 3,000 confirmed deaths[1]: morgues in the country have been overwhelmed. There are two vaccines currently available in Zambia: AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, both donated through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative by countries such as the USA. Skepticism of the vaccines in Zambia is high, however, and only 1.3% of the population have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

In one of the most extensively shared videos on Zambian social media in recent weeks, entitled “Wake up Africa, Wake up Black Man,” Nevers Mumba, the former vice president of Zambia and former Zambian High Commissioner (ambassador) to Canada, gives forceful remarks at the beginning and end of the video addressed directly to the viewer. In these remarks, Mr. Mumba states the following:

“Zambia must not inject any vaccine in any Zambian body before strenuous verification and validation is done to this vaccine…We must declare that the vaccine is unsafe until it is scientifically proved to be safe…by our own scientists and our own doctors. I heard somebody say: ‘where are we going to get scientists and doctors?’ Well, if you can’t verify what is given you by your own people, then I suggest you don’t get involved in catching things that are meant by others…Then you can be poisoned, and we can all die like fools like Martin Luther King, Junior said.

We may be poor, but we are not stupid. We can read when they write on the vaccine this is not for distribution in the United States, and this cannot be used in the European Union…They’re even telling you that this is not for us, because they have got some other substandard stuff that they make for us. How do you know the injection given to President Biden is the same vaccine as the one which is coming here?…You can watch it on CNN and say even President Biden got a dosage of it. Are you sure? Did you see it? Did you get the drop and analyze it that it is the same drop getting into an African’s body?…Our salvation, outside God, will be from responsible government on the continent of Africa…We shall die like fools if we have a government which is corrupt and is only waiting to be given money by the international community.”

Between these opening and closing remarks made by Mumba are spliced a number of ominous pieces of footage of different interviews and recorded panels, in which white men discuss the overpopulation of the world, and how it is necessary for “three billion people,” beginning in Africa, to be eliminated in order to return the global human population to balance. The video continues with footage of an interview in which a retired member of the South African Institute for Marine Research (SAIMR), a bogus front for a mercenary organization with ties to the former Apartheid regime in South Africa, admits to working with his organization in the 1990s to infect large numbers of black Africans with HIV under the guise of philanthropic vaccination campaigns. The rhetorical effect of this repeated interview footage is to make it seem quite plausible, when the video returns at its conclusion to Mumba’s remarks, that white actors might once again use the cover of a mass vaccination campaign to murder large numbers of Africans.

At a moment when many in the global North are concerned about “vaccine hesitancy” around the world, a widely-disseminated video such as this one might easily seem extremely dangerous. What if tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people were to die due to “vaccine hesitancy” promoted by popular videos such as this one? What if, as the COVID-19 virus circulates unrestrained among a largely unvaccinated population in Zambia, new variants like the Delta variant mutate and spread to once again infect already-vaccinated populations concentrated in the global North? What if, in short, the unruly epistemologies of people in Zambia and elsewhere in the global South refuse to submit themselves to the authority of hegemonic biomedical authorities of the global North, and thus threaten the lives and physical safety of those who subscribe to the knowledge claims of these authorities and choose to become vaccinated?

This, then, is an epistemological contest in which the stakes, both moral and practical, are high. Countless lives hang in the balance, whether it is true that a mass COVID-19 vaccination program will poison and kill millions of Africans, as Nevers Mumba suggests when he says “we’ll die like fools,” or that a new COVID-19 variant mutating in bodies of unvaccinated Zambians returns to kill millions of already-vaccinated people, as the biomedical establishment suggests. As the essays in this series, Contested Truths over Covid-19 in Africa, demonstrate, however, under conditions such as this when the epistemological stakes are so high, there is danger in thinking too fast, in too quickly coming to already-settled conclusions about the obviously true and the patently false. It is dangerous because it is too easy for the stakes to make it possible to reinforce existing epistemological hierarchies and power structures, and to perpetrate epistemological as well as physical violence upon Black and Brown bodies.

Taking seriously an imperative to slow down and think carefully through these competing knowledge claims, in this piece I reflect upon issues raised by the question of epistemological justification. In traditional Anglo-American analytic philosophy, epistemology is often framed as an analysis of “justified true belief,” sometimes glossed as the “JTB” view of knowledge (Ichikawa and Steup 2018). Of course, what counts as truth is inexorably linked to prevailing power relations, as has long been demonstrated by scholars in feminist, queer, and black studies (Ahmed 2007, Haraway 1988, Weheliye 2014, Wynter 2003). There is no universal, non-positioned stance from which to judge absolutely what is “true” and what is “false,” even if it is the case that within any particular language game (Wittgenstein 1969) or regime of veridiction (Foucault 2008) it is possible to advance certain claims of truth and falsity. Here I wish to shift focus from the notion of “truth” to the less-often considered notion of “justification,” without thereby relegating the knowledge claims of the “Wake up Africa” video to a different mode of existence (Latour 2013), separate and therefore unjudgeable within the regimes of knowledge inhabited by the claims of the mainstream biomedical establishment. In short, I ask: in a global system that at its ideological foundations continues to be violently anti-Black (Harney and Moten 2013; Jenkins and Leroy 2020), what are the evidentiary bases that can form appropriate justification for knowledge?

One important consideration is the question of how epistemological authority, and therefore the epistemological justification that authority can grant, is related to moral legitimacy. As a subject who subscribes to the knowledge claims of the scientific, biomedical establishment concentrated in the global North, I of course rely upon the epistemological authority of others to form my own knowledge, which I believe to be justified, just as much as does anyone in Zambia who subscribes to the knowledge claims of the “Wake up Africa” video. To state the perfectly obvious: as a non-scientist, non-medical practitioner, I had absolutely no unmediated knowledge regarding the COVID-19 vaccine (in my case, Pfizer/BioNTech) before I allowed a nurse to inject it into my arm this past spring. I took it on blind faith that the news reports and health advice I had received were not part of a conspiracy to do me harm, and that the vaccine I received would fill me with life-preserving antibodies and not life-murdering poison.

As Evans-Pritchard (1937) long ago demonstrated, however, knowledge systems of all kinds tend to be anchored by closed loops of self-reinforcing poles of justification that allow for little doubt. For the Azande, Evans-Pritchard argued, these poles were witchcraft, oracles, and magic. I might say that the poles of my own knowledge system are the mainstream Western news media (the New York Times, BBC, et al.), the claims of university-trained “experts,” and the advice of government and inter-governmental agencies (CDC, WHO…). Any particular source in this scheme can of course be doubted. But, crucially, I can only doubt any of these poles in terms of the other two: I can only doubt the reliability of the WHO because I read critical reports of it in the New York Times, etc. Because this is the language game and way of life (Wittgenstein 1969) I inhabit, I am not really able to evaluate knowledge claims made outside of this system, nor am I likely to wonder if all three poles of my knowledge system might all agree and yet be giving me false (or even malicious) knowledge.

But all knowledge is also storied (Ingold 2011). The story I accept of my justified knowledge is plausible precisely because as a straight, white, cis, American man the powerful institutions that surround me: the American state, the university, the capitalist news media, have served to protect me and people who look like me for most of my life. A story of biomedical science as a gradually progressing field over centuries that is constantly pushing to develop new methods of serving the health needs of my body is plausible to me precisely because it accords with my lived experience. Meanwhile, for my friends and interlocutors in Zambia, other kinds of stories are more salient. Biomedical mass vaccination campaigns and clinical drug trials in Africa have a long, storied history of being accomplished through violent coercion (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Schmidt-Ehry 2000, White 2000) with sometimes murderous effects (Nyalile and Loo 2021). Moreover, as a “front-line state” once surrounded by hostile and aggressive white minority regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa, Zambia has a specific history of being targeted for violence intended to maintain white supremacy in the region. As the different clips of video spliced together in the “Wake up Africa” video demonstrate forcefully, in the 21st-century Zambians are still keenly aware of global discourses of anti-Blackness which figure them as the least desirable, and therefore most expendable, members of the global population. At one point in the “Wake up Africa” video, a certain Dr. Robert Young provides testimony to the “ITNJ Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Weaponization of the Biosphere,” providing the following comments, ostensibly regarding the COVID-19 vaccine:

“For the purpose of sterilization and population control. There’s too many people on the planet we need to get rid of, in the words of Bill Gates: at least 3 billion people need to die. So, we’ll just start off in Africa, we’ll start doing our research there and we’ll eliminate most of the Africans because they’re deplorable, they’re worthless, they’re not part of this world economy, so they have their rights taken away, and they’re suppressed and they’re experimented.”

Though sometimes contemporary Africa is held to be relatively isolated from “American-centric” discourses of racism and anti-racism, as Pierre (2013) notes “the very production of ‘Africa’—its colonial history, its geographical, political, and cultural mapping as well as ongoing discursive constructions of the continent’s incorrigible difference—occurs through ideas of race” (5). The “Wake up Africa” video’s very ubiquity across Zambian social media in recent weeks, not to mention its explicit endorsement by a prominent Zambian elder statesman, similarly suggests that the story—and therefore knowledge—of murderous anti-Black racism the video tells is more real for many Zambians than alternative stories of philanthropic care emanating from the global North.

If then knowledge is “justified true belief,” as many philosophers have it, what justification would people in Zambia have, as one of my friends there recently asked me, to trust the pro-vaccine pronouncements of the BBC, CNN, and Al-Jazeera? These powerful media corporations are part and parcel of a global capitalist system founded upon the often-times murderous racialization, exploitation, and dispossession that disproportionally falls upon Black and Brown bodies (Bhattacharyya 2018, Jenkins and Leroy 2020, Robinson 2000), especially in Africa (Mbembe 2017). Operating from my own positioned realm of knowledge, I respond to my Zambian friends over social media with links to articles in the BBC and the New York Times that seek to document and discredit various “conspiracy theories” regarding the COVID-19 vaccine(s). I consider the knowledge I derive from these sources well-justified, even if I cannot be sure it is true. But that is precisely the point. My knowledge that there is no plot to drastically reduce the world’s population does not feel risky, or precarious, or naive, because the type of racialized subject I embody has never been the target of similar such plots. Other racialized subjects have.

As one of my good friends in Zambia, Miyanda Miyoba, recently phrased it to me bluntly: “My biggest concern is why are there too many contradicting theories about the vaccine? Am concerned. You seem not so concerned about that. For you, these guys opposing [the vaccine] are fake unless guys from the WHO, the same people with an agenda of depopulating the world, agree with it.”[2] My friend’s comments raise starkly the issue of moral legitimacy. I agree with my friend that powerful institutions such as the WHO headquartered in the global North probably have a compelling interest in checking and even reducing the world’s population, probably starting in places with high population growth, like Africa. But, insulated as I am from violent histories of biomedical control and exclusion, I remain blithely unconcerned that this vaccine is part of such an attempt to depopulate the world. But from my friend’s perspective, such nonchalance is irresponsibly risky. In a situation of ambiguity (Giles-Vernick, Traore, and Bainilago 2016) arising from contradictory theories about the vaccine, the epistemological dictates of hegemonic institutions such as the WHO cannot be trusted, precisely because of their long history of complicity with regimes of anti-Blackness and inequality that have created widespread disease and death in Africa (Fassin 2007; Tilley 2011). No matter, then, whether the COVID-19 vaccines poison and kill millions or whether widespread vaccine hesitancy arising from lack of trust in biomedical institutions causes dangerous new variants to emerge: the immoral histories of anti-Black biomedical practices in Africa have come to threaten us all.

Justin Haruyama is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at University of California, Davis. His research examines the controversial presence of Chinese migrants in Africa today, with a focus on social interactions between Chinese expatriate and local Zambian communities as they come to interact in contexts of work and religion in southern Zambia.


[1] There is also a strong possibility that these numbers are vastly underreported.

[2] Miyanda requested to be identified with his real name in this piece to make clear that these comments were his own.

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