Published: Sept. 14, 2020 By
Girl listening to music with mask on

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in earlier this year, few people expected the drastic impact it would have on our society. But one CU Boulder researcher heard some aspects coming from a long way off: debates over where the virus originated, resistance to mask-wearing and the intense politicization of the public health response. 

Austin Okigbo, an associate professor of ethnomusicology, studies South African music created during epidemics. According to Okigbo, certain themes reverberate through periods of widespread illness.

“There is a big divide between cultural ways of thinking about disease and medical ways of thinking about disease,” Okigbo said. 

Though the science behind previous pandemics is often well-documented, Okigbo set out to explore the social reaction. 

“Music is an expressive form. The arts bring out what exists in the minds of people,” he said.

As scientists track a virus as it spreads across society, people’s minds and emotions can run wild, too, causing what Okigbo calls “epidemiological noise.”

“It’s no longer just the biological virus,” Okigbo said. “Now we're dealing with the pandemic of misinformation and the pandemic of political bickering.” 

In previous research, Okigbo looked at three major diseases in South African history—smallpox, the influenza of 1918 and HIV/AIDs. He found glaring similarities between all three:

  • The resistance to vaccinations or public health guidelines
  • The division of communities and families
  • The rise of conspiracy theories about where the virus originated and who is spreading it

Okigbo found that social and cultural events prior surrounding pandemics fueled the responses and behaviors toward them. 


Although a vaccination for smallpox was created in the mid-1700s, it did not get widely distributed in South Africa for nearly 200 years. 

Following the colonial trade routes, a British anti-vaccination movement spread into South Africa, causing many people to become skeptical of the smallpox vaccination. 

The tension divided communities and families.

Austin Okigbo

Austin Okigbo: professor of ethnomusicology.

A Zulu song’s the lyrics read:

“We are no longer kind to each other, even among relatives.
It’s the fault of this terrible disease.
This disease is terrible, my Lord!
It has driven the son-in-law from his home.
He goes but returns with cruel words.”

Okigbo says similar dynamics are on display today. 

“Before we had coronavirus, there was an outbreak of measles in the U.S. that sparked debates from the present anti-vaccination movement,” Okigbo said. “Now we have COVID-19, and people have already invented anti-vaccination theories that discourage people from getting the highly anticipated vaccination.” 

The flu of 1918 

Headed into the flu of 1918, South African racial tensions were high, thanks in part to a law allocating 70% of the land to white South Africans of European descent, who made up less than 13 percent of the total population. 

When the influenza hit, the white minority-controlled government sent public health officials into black communities to inoculate them. In response, traditional African healers started cautioning against vaccinations.

“The Black population thought the influenza was invented by Europeans as a ploy to wipe out the indigenous population in order to take full control of their land,” Okigbo said. 

After all, the disease came from Europe. It was soldiers who returned from World War I that introduced the flu to South Africa.

“There is this distrust of the state by the people, and the pandemic just exacerbated that distrust,” Okigbo said. 

Rueben Tholakele Caluza, an acclaimed south African composer, wrote a song in response to the 1913 Land Act titled Si Lu Sapo or I Land Act, highlighting Black South African’s distrust of the white government. The lyrics read:

“Our generation of Africans
We cry for our country
Zulus, Xhosas, and Sothos come together 
Zulus, Xhosas and Sothos come together        
We cry about the Land Act

The right which our compatriots fought for    
Our cry for the nation    
is to have our country
We cry for the homeless sons of our fathers
Who do not have a place in this place of our ancestors?”


By the time the HIV/AIDs pandemic got underway, decades of apartheid had eroded trust in South African political leaders. 

“There continues to be this conspiracy theory that HIV/AIDS was intentionally introduced to wipe out the Black population, based on what was going on socially and culturally prior to the pandemic,” Okgibo said.

The opening section of a song titled Siyaphela Isizwe pleads for salvation and unity.

“The nation of the Lord is dying off
Because it’s being killed by AIDS
Wake up Africa let’s fight it
If you are infected 
We are also affected
Come on Africa
Let’s stand up and fight
Together we stand
But divided we fall”

The bottom line, according to Okigbo: If a country is experiencing political and social division, pandemics will expose the discord. 


When COVD-19 hit the US, politically and socially divided Americans began finger-pointing. Facial coverings became a partisan issue. Conspiracy theories on the safety of the vaccination exist before a vaccine is on the market. Essentially, it fits the pattern Okigbo found throughout history.

“If there’s any difference, it would be the degree to which the resistance has tended to turn violent,” Okigbo said. 

Okigbo has already begun documenting the music of the coronavirus pandemic, looking at musical stylistics and interpretations of genres to build on his research. He hopes it points leaders towards treating the social issues alongside the medical issues.

“If I were to be part of the presidential COVID-19 task force, I would be telling them that while they are studying the biological nature of this virus as its developing, they need to be attentive to these other sociocultural issues that could potentially disrupt our efforts,” he said.