BBC Africa retracts ‘offensive’ headline following social media criticism 

British international broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), has changed the headline of a report published on its Africa online platforms following criticism from social media users. 

The headline, published on 3 September 2020 alongside an article on the BBC Africa platforms read: “Coronavirus in Africa: Could poverty explain mystery of low death rate?” 

A screenshot of the post before it was edited

In the article, the BBC reported about how infection and death rates in many African countries have turned out to be much lower than initially feared. 

The author, Mr Andrew Harding reporting from Johannesburg in South Africa highlighted the impossibility of social distancing, given the crowded townships, communal washing spaces, and communities where large families often share a single room.

However, one South African scientist he spoke to alluded to the idea that these conditions could give people some extra protection against Covid-19. 

“It seems possible that our struggles, our poor conditions might be working in favour of African countries and our populations,” said Professor Shabir Madhi, South Africa’s top virologist and an important figure in the hunt for a vaccine for Covid-19.

Other experts quoted in the article wondered why most African countries don’t have a peak, with one Professor, Shabir Madhi describing it as an enigma. “It’s completely unbelievable.”

While it highlighted other possible reasons for the low incidence of the infectious disease in Africa, such as the youthful population, early and aggressive lockdowns, and intensive messaging about wearing of masks, the BBC was criticised for promoting racism. 

“I had to read the article to understand that headline and out of curiosity, your editor thought using the age analysis and the continent’s weather conditions could not work but poverty brings the message home,” one Nabulumba Hindu tweeted in response. 

Other readers were concerned about the BBC’s decision to use information collected from just one country, South Africa, to generalise about Covid-19 in the whole of Africa. In addition, the experts and officials quoted in the article were all South African. 

“This article assumes that the whole continent is an urban slum. A little research would’ve educated the author to the fact that Africa is mainly a rural continent, Europe is more densely populated on average than Africa,” tweeted one Ola David

The publication has however retracted the headline. BBC Africa confirmed in a tweet that the article has since been edited “to better reflect what the scientists said. It was not our intention to cause offence.”

The updated headline reads, “Coronavirus in South Africa: Scientists explore surprise theory for low death rate.” 

Twitter users have called on the international media company to be more sensitive as this is not the first time they have been forced to retract articles deemed offensive to Africans. 

On August 9, 2020, BBC Director General Tony Hall apologised and said a mistake was made after a news report containing a racial slur was broadcast. 

The BBC received more than 18,600 complaints from viewers after the N-word was used in full in a TV-report about a racially aggravated attack in Bristol, England. 

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