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Is mid-pandemic travel creating a resurgence of the white saviour complex?

TikTok influencer Charly Jordan was rightly criticised after she travelled to Rwanda to ‘raise awareness’ about endangered gorillas.

19 Sep 2020

The white saviour complex has a long history. This year, Stacey Dooley posted an image of her on a Comic Relief trip holding a young child, captioned “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED”. And we can’t forget Ellen Degeneres’ obligatory white saviour image surrounded by a group of Black children, who perhaps thought she had solved world hunger by doing so. The term “white saviour” is often used to describe a white person who carries out an action to “help” non-white people in a way that can be seen as self-serving and boastful. 

Then earlier this month, TikTok influencer Charly Jordan came under fire for travelling to Rwanda in the midst of the pandemic. In a now private video, Charly explains that she was held in lockdown by the Rwandan government. “Literally the fucking government showed up at my place and dragged me away from everybody I was with. I don’t speak the language, they locked me in this fucking room”.

The overwhelmingly negative response on social media accused Charly of overdramatising the situation she was in and looking for sympathy. She complained about having to quarantine, despite this simply being Rwanda’s policy. Her reaction, to me, was unnecessary and suggests that she felt she was exempt from the rules because of her “fame”. I found it strange that she would take to social media to film herself crying and complaining about being held in lockdown. 

“Westerners have a staggering sense of entitlement around the necessity of travelling, both in and out of a pandemic”

This comes at a time where the world is in a period of disarray, uncertainty and vulnerability due to an almost year-long pandemic we still do not have a cure for. It says a lot that she and fellow influencer Kinsey would travel during this time, putting the Rwandan population at risk.

Although Rwanda was said to be one of the countries able to suppress the virus early on, attributed to “a combination of strong leadership, well-supported health workers and clear public health communications” according to World Health Organization Director, General Tedros Ghebreyesus, Charly’s decision to travel from America which has the most covid-19 cases and deaths, in the world felt inconsiderate.

Westerners have a staggering sense of entitlement around the necessity of travelling, both in and out of a pandemic. Charly claims to have gone to Rwanda to help raise awareness of “endangered gorillas” via Achieve Global Safaris. Yet the animals at the safari are already being looked after by a “dedicated and experienced team” of experts. Charly evidently visited Rwanda for her own self-discovery under the guise of charity work; classic voluntourism.

Covid-19 has dealt the tourism industry an almost fatal blow. As we know, social distance suppresses the virus so travelling from one country to another in the close confines of a plane, train or boat can distribute the disease rapidly. As overseas holidays have soared during summer, infections have risen with blame being put onto those who are travelling non-essentially.

While many countries rely on tourism to keep the economy running, non-essential travel is a huge threat to healthcare systems across the world. Western travellers can return to their home countries with the money and resources to be looked after should they catch Covid-19, but what about the countries they travel to that are left with the after-effects of their reckless decisions?

In another celebrity cock up earlier in September, actor Gerard Butler posted about travelling to Liberia to feed children. In one image on his Instagram, he is feeding a child from an object that looks similar to a dog bowl. You read that correctly. In another photo, he poses with two children while not wearing a mask or social distancing. “I’ve taken a bit of a ‘summer break’ from social media,” he says in the caption. “So many children around the world rely on their school for daily meals.” 

The tired trope of the white superhero who comes in to save the day and rescue the children from their distressing lives is both degrading and dehumanising. Gerard feeding the children with a huge smile on his face left many feeling cold. Whether his efforts were well-intentioned or not is irrelevant when the public promotion feels so self-serving. 

Often, there is little context around what happens beyond these initiatives and we are not given much more than a paragraph about world hunger and a link to donate. But what are the most urgent needs of Liberian people?

“I think using charity work as an excuse to travel isn’t okay”

A report published following the Ebola outbreak showed that 90% of respondents in Liberia said they were eating less at every meal. This is in part due to the rising cost of food imports and the country becoming increasingly dependent on overseas imports due to the closing of local borders. It is also due to a decline in local agriculture, where farm labourers had to stop working to avoid the disease. The paternalistic mindset of doing things for underprivileged people and not empowering them with the tools to make better lives for themselves and make a longstanding difference is ignorant and damaging. 

What it reveals is that white voices are dominating these conversations, and we are not seeing enough evidence that demonstrates that they are taking the time to understand the histories and nuanced needs of different communities. The work done by Gerard Butler has some value, but the problem will not be solved by tourists alone. It is a much deeper issue with the need for cross-government talks and collaboration.

I miss the freedom of going on holiday and having a break from home, and I’m sure we’d all like to travel again. But Covid-19 is not to be taken lightly and it is reckless to take non-essential trips at this time. With fears of second waves emerging across the globe, and seeing the repercussions of Charly’s actions, I think using charity work as an excuse to travel isn’t okay.