Socialist Worker

BBC documentary Extra Life explores the long history of racism and vaccines

by Isabel Ringrose
Issue No. 2754

David Olusoga explains how slavery and the development of vaccines are intertwine

David Olusoga explains how slavery and the development of vaccines are intertwine (Pic: BBC/Nutopia/Joe Taylor)


Extra Life explores previous global pandemics to learn lessons in the fight against Covid-19.

The first episode focuses on smallpox, how vaccinations were developed to beat it and why this can help a global inoculation programme.

Early forms of vaccination—variolation—were practiced in Africa and brought to America by a slave, Onesimus, who had undergone an operation to preserve him from smallpox.

This practice was rejected by scientists in America because it undermined the notion that white people were superior to their black slaves. Yet when British aristocrat Lady Mary Montague witnessed the same procedure in Ottoman Turkey, the practice’s popularity swelled.

Historian David Olusoga notes that this was “the beginning of health inequality”.

Vicious racist history feeds fear of Covid-19 vaccine
Vicious racist history feeds fear of Covid-19 vaccine
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British scientist Edward Jenner, credited for the smallpox vaccine, actually built on a longer history of variolation originating in 16th century Asia and Africa.

Jenner actually tested on his gardener’s eight-year-old son.

And when former US president Thomas Jefferson rolled out his vaccination programme, it was his slaves he used as guinea pigs.

The documentary compares this power imbalance to vaccine hesitancy today. Extra Life examines how legitimate fears among black people of governments and big business are used by conspiracy theorists to spread online misinformation.

And it looks at how wealthy countries are able to grab enough vaccines for double or treble their population size, while the poorest go without.

It calls on Big Pharma “to not put profits first all the time” because unless everyone is vaccinated the virus will continue to mutate.

By viewing the global smallpox inoculation programme with somewhat rose tinted glasses, the experts conclude that governments can mobilise together.

But that would mean overcoming the priority of profit that drives competition.

Extra Life—A Short History of Living Longer. First episode starts 10:05pm, Tues 18 May, BBC4 and then on BBC Iplayer

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