One of the most significant challenges to confronting and mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the manufacturing, circulation, and interpretation of ‘contested truths.’ By this term, we mean the many and varied ways in which official, institutional, and/or scientific facts and recommendations about COVID-19 are challenged, ignored, or subverted at multiple scales, from the individual to the state. This panel will explore the political, epistemological, and social dimensions of contested truths in the African context, where such tensions are frequently also political contestations over resources, economic priorities, and glaring global (health) inequalities inherited from colonization and neoliberal privatization. While international media coverage often depicts herbal treatments, healing prayers, fake news, and the refusal to practice physical distancing as threats eliciting panic and moral condemnation, this panel seeks to disaggregate these diverse practices and attend to their situatedness. In doing so, we seek to think beyond binaries of true and fake news, biomedical and alternative therapies, information and disinformation.

We welcome papers on contested truths over COVID-19 in Africa that consider the following questions: Why should anthropologists and other scholars continue to critically study and engage with non-biomedical narratives of disease? Whose voices and experiences are left out when biomedicine is presented as the sole or most important lens through which to understand the pandemic? Alternatively, does taking marginal and alternative approaches seriously risk further viralizing rumors, disinformation, and conspiracy theories? How do non-biomedical approaches illuminate our understanding of COVID-19? We especially encourage submissions that situate these queries within the ongoing legacies of neo/colonialism, development, securitization, neoliberalization, and racial capitalism on the continent. Potential topics include, but are not limited to: the political economy of rumors about COVID-19; the contested role of the state in enforcing lockdowns; faith-based or vernacular healing for COVID-19; interventions by international organizations into public health messaging; and considerations of our own responsibilities with regards to contested truths. At the crux of these, and our, discussions are questions about life – and the care, responsibility, and accountability required to support its vitality and flourishing.

We welcome submissions from traditionally under-represented voices, junior and senior scholars alike, and seek papers from across all disciplines and regions of Africa. Interested panelists should submit a paper title, abstract (250 words max), current affiliation and contact info to: Jia Hui Lee (jiahui@mit.edu), Laura Meek (lameek@hku.hk), and Jacob Katumusiime Mwine-Kyarimpa (jkatumusiime256@gmail.com) by Friday, March 26. Decisions about acceptance of abstracts for this panel will be emailed no later than Monday, March 29. Please do not hesitate to email with any questions.