Disposable Lives: COVID-19, Vaccines, and the Uprising

121 Columbia Law Review Forum 71 (2021)

U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-09

25 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2021

See all articles by Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf

Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: June 2, 2021


Two French doctors appeared on television and publicly discussed potentially utilizing African subjects in experimental trials for a tuberculosis vaccine as an antidote to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), denounced these kinds of racist remarks as a “hangover from ‘colonial mentality’” and maintained that “Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine.” The fallout on social media was similarly swift, with Samuel Eto’o, a Cameroonian football legend, referring to the doctors as “[d]es assasins” and several others questioning the motives behind testing a vaccine on the African continent. The dialogue between the doctors and the strong reactions to their statements reopen the wounds of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color’s lives being treated as disposable.

This Piece connects how racialized notions regarding which lives are disposable are reflected widely in the areas of health and human rights. The presumed expendability of Black lives is made manifest from systemic police violence, to the devastating racially disproportionate impact of COVID-19, to historic and ongoing medical experimentation, and to inequitable vaccine access. The twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19 have heightened the visibility of the disposability with which society views the lives of people of color. The cumulative effect of this disposability furthers the devaluation of subordinated groups. Through exploring the theme of disposability, this Piece clarifies the roles of international human rights law, global public health, and international intellectual property law in either advancing racial justice efforts or contributing toward racial subordination. This period of racial reckoning and reform creates an opening to challenge the racial status quo in these areas and beyond.

Note: Funding: No external funding.
Competing interests: Authors declare no competing interests.

Keywords: systemic racism, global public health, human rights, racial subordination, police violence, black lives matter, racial health disparities, CERD, medical neocolonialism

Suggested Citation

Sirleaf, Matiangai V. S., Disposable Lives: COVID-19, Vaccines, and the Uprising (June 2, 2021). 121 Columbia Law Review Forum 71 (2021), U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-09, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3858686

Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

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