As we continue to navigate the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has been made clear: COVID-19 disproportionately harms vulnerable populations. Particularly in places with past and present ties to colonialism, oppressive systems are resurrected and inequalities become even more entrenched. Over the past few months, the “Conversations from the Leading Edge” podcast from Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) has embarked on a three-part series focusing on colonialism and COVID-19. From the Navajo Nation to Somalia, diverse speakers discussed how colonial structures are perpetuated in modern times.
How the series came to be
The “Colonialism and COVID-19” podcast series was developed by Mari Casellato, a member of the AC4 communications team, in partnership with Zahirah McNatt and Lola Adewunmi, with support from Rachel Kirk, program manager of communications at AC4.
Zahirah is an assistant professor at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. She received her doctor of public health degree from the Mailman School at Columbia, and has served as director for leadership education and practice at Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute. At the start of the pandemic, Zahirah, who had been interviewed on the podcast previously, immediately began reflecting on how colonial dynamics were playing out, and approached Rachel and Mari with ideas on how to bring these questions on inequality and coloniality to light through the AC4 podcast. While reflecting on humanitarian space and global health in times of the COVID-19 crisis, Zahirah believes that “Power dynamics are unequal…While there are great ideas on the table, there are missing voices.” Throughout her career in public health, Zahirah has seen the complex dynamics around NGOs, institutions, and governments, and how many of the “solutions” tend to come from far away from the people most-impacted by public health issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different. As a Black woman in the public health profession who at times has questioned her role, Zahirah felt the need to bring questions on inequalities and coloniality to light.
The pandemic and its disproportionate impacts also made a deep impression on her friend and colleague, Omolola (Lola) Adewunmi. She is a Nigerian-American humanitarian professional who is passionate about international law, human rights and migration. Over the past five years, Lola has held positions with non-governmental organizations, international organizations and agencies within the United Nations and U.S. Government. She received her M.A. in International Affairs from George Washington University and completed coursework on International Human Rights Law and Refugee Law at the University of Oxford.
The friendship between Lola and Zahirah, who met several years ago, helped the podcast series come to full fruition. For Lola, she noticed early on that COVID-19 was replicating the colonial models, “especially in the humanitarian sector in terms of who was able to leave particular countries, looking at larger questions of accessibility, and how some of the spread of COVID-19 into some African countries was due to European tourists.” With hyperbolized media painting African countries in a negative light when it was in fact countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that were so poorly managing the pandemic, Lola felt the need to slow down and reflect on these inequalities. She said that although they had started the series beforehand, “in light of the death of George Floyd and the global movements around Black Lives Matter, it felt like people were waking up to colonialism and racism. The podcast series was cathartic in the way that I could direct my energy towards these frustrating dynamics throughout this time.”
When Zahirah and Lola reached out to AC4 with an interest in telling this story about the pandemic and colonialism through the podcast platform, Mari Casellato, a member of the communications team at AC4, had already been diving into this topic through her own research and classes at Teachers College. Mariana is part of the Decolonization Study Group, which has been joining efforts to understand and promote higher education decolonization initiatives at the college. As a result, ideas coalesced into action.
“The teamwork was amazing,” Mari commented. “All of us have grown as a team and each of us had a specific role and shared feedback. Talking about [the pandemic and colonialism] is important since there is not much noise surrounding this topic. The amount of feedback has been greater than expected and that is very telling.”
Rachel Kirk was very excited to support the development of this series as well, given her own professional and academic interests around social and environmental justice and felt like it was an important set of stories that needed more attention. “Despite this pandemic very falsely being proclaimed as an ‘equalizer’ early on in mainstream media narratives, the devastating impacts of this pandemic do not exist outside of the structures of racism and colonialism that we are immersed in and we must be explicit about that.”
Exploring colonialist legacies from many angles
The first episode of the series discusses how colonial structures are present in modern times, and how they are reflected in the COVID-19 crisis. For this episode, Zahirah sought to connect colonialism with global health. The topic brought on a set of challenges. Colonialism is often thought of as a relic of the past, so it was critical that they find speakers who could connect the past with the present and could bounce back on each other. Zahirah reached out to Farina King, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor of history, and Tinashe Goronga, a physician from Zimbabwe who is focused on social medicine, public health, and health equity. Through working with these two, Zahirah observed interesting connections such as how colonized places become food deserts, which contributes to higher rates of hypertension and diabetes, and how Native American reservations parallel reservations created for Black Zimbabweans. This indicates that the connected legacies of colonialism can be seen throughout seemingly disconnected contexts.
The second episode tackles the intersection of colonialism, COVID-19, and the need for greater support for localized responses, with an example from the city of Mogadishu in Somalia. This episode was deeply inspirational and transitioned smoothly from the start as the discussion focused entirely on the present and the work of non-governmental organizations. The selected speaker was Hodan Ali, director of the Durable Solutions Unit, a local Somalian government body that responds to humanitarian needs. Hodan Ali turned out to be incredibly outspoken and honest.
The second episode paved the way for the third episode, which examines narratives surrounding COVID-19 and the harm that hegemonic distorted narratives present. The episode features Bianca Santana from Brazil and Alpha Senkpeni from Liberia, two journalists who discussed their roles in countering the colonial narratives in their contexts.
Another unique feature of the series is the music that accompanies these podcast episodes. Seamlessly blended in the background is distinct music that is relevant to the speakers’ contexts: “I was choosing music that was respectful and appropriate,” said Mari, “so each one that I chose was approved by the speaker.” During the process of finding a Somolian song for the second episode, Mari came across “Uur Hooyo,” by Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi. The famous musician unfortunately passed away due to COVID. Thus the song, approved by the speaker Hodan Ali, was an indirect homage to the music and lives affected by COVID-19.
Lessons learned, and hopes for the future
In a way, for Zahirah, these episodes are “inspirations” and they provide a “powerhouse of women; and a sense of fearlessness in speaking truth to power to dismantle some of these structures.” One lesson she learned very quickly from this particular podcast process is the importance of minimizing jargon language. Academic and professional speakers can unconsciously throw in heavy and esoteric jargon, especially in the public health and humanitarian aid sectors, and thus it was ideal for speakers to be more colloquial and connect with the broader audience, and to think in non-technical terms about the story we really wanted to tell. For Lola, one important lesson was narrowing down questions to extract important messages from the speakers. Having pre-discussions proved to be useful and the one-on-one discussions enabled her to tease out important questions for the podcast. As for Mari, who was in charge of editing and producing, recording during COVID-19 was a challenge. Because everyone was recording at home, she had to make sure the sound quality was professional and meshed well together.
The podcast series has received wide attention and feedback ranging from university students to high-profile donors. Zahirah hopes that the podcasts will end up in the ears of people and groups in positions of power within the fields of public health and humanitarian aid, such as the UN and the World Bank, as well as media outlets that have touched upon these issues before, such as NPR and the New Humanitarian. Lola has been excited about its reach so far but believes it is important that the podcast series be more broadly disseminated to audiences beyond the university.
We hope you can help realize their hopes by checking out the podcast episodes and sharing them with your social network. More descriptions and links to resources, including music and speakers’ websites, are available on SoundCloud and Spotify.