Nat Geo Photographer Didn’t Wear a Mask in Ethiopia Because Ethiopians ‘Have Stronger Immune Systems’

Nat Geo Photographer Didn’t Wear a Mask in Ethiopia Because Ethiopians ‘Have Stronger Immune Systems’

National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz has drawn criticism and accusations of colonial attitudes after presenting himself without a mask in Ethiopia and explaining that face coverings and social distancing weren’t necessary because of the stronger immune systems of rural Ethiopians.

Steinmetz posted a photograph to his Instagram of himself flying a drone surrounded by a crowd of local people in rural Ethiopia, explaining that operating a UAV always draws a crowd. “I finally gave up on masks and social distance, as it became clear that rural Ethiopians have much stronger immune systems than people in the industrialized world,” Steinmetz explained. “Or maybe it’s just the abundance of fresh air and tropical sunlight in this ancient land,” he continued, before signing off by saying, “Me no know,” as though imitating someone with a poor grasp of English.

George Steinmetz in Ethiopia

As pointed out by photographer Chirag Wakaskar, Ethiopia was given a Level 4 Travel Advisory by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in August last year. Steinmetz stated in the comments to his Instagram post that he was tested for COVID-19 before departure and upon arrival in Ethiopia and, without any scientific basis, stated that “my guess is that the rural population here is relatively immune.”

Following criticism, Steinmetz deleted the post from his feed. He responded to a tweet by apologizing that the post came across as insensitive and inappropriate, but not for putting Ethiopians at risk, nor for spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Steinmetz responded to enquiries but did not offer comment.

Lead image by Peter Linforth

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29 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Hopefully the Ethiopian government gives him a piece of their mind...

jim hughes's picture

In case anyone here is interested in some actual scientific research on this subject - try Googling "rural children stronger immune".

Jan Holler's picture

I have. It is not proven and there is no hard evidence. It could be, but the claimed effect is not quantified either.
Sometimes it's amazing how stupid some people are when they make racist arguments. What was he thinking?

jim hughes's picture

I seriously doubt he had any intent to disrespect Ethiopians. It's quite possible that, statistically, they do have stronger immune systems due to living close to the ground in an agrarian society - or for other reasons related to Africa's huge genetic diversity. We don't know yet. I can certainly empathize with a photographer not wanting to be the only person wearing a mask, and thereby implying that the local people were a danger to him - wait, mightn't that be a "colonial attitude"?

LA M's picture

Idiot...most of the disease on the continent was a result of colonialism.

John Xantoro's picture

Yeah, no. That is just factually wrong. Malaria alone has done (and is doing) more damage than anything brought to Africa by colonizers.

Kirk Darling's picture

If he had been the only one not wearing a mask, I'd take more issue with this.

As it was, with everyone else unmasked, in the open outdoors in an environment known hostile to the virus, with scant contact, it's a molehill of an issue.

Some situations really are less critical than others, and this was a less critical situation. No need to make a religion out of it.

Percy Ortiz's picture

sadly no mask or vaccine can help with stupidity

Dan Jefferies's picture

Having a relatively young population has helped keep most of Africa "safe". It's the nature of the virus not some magically strong immune systems.

al bagden's picture

Good to know.

Ryan Cooper's picture

They probably do have much stronger immune systems, to be fair. (Our immune system gets stronger just like anything else, by facing and overcoming. Just as children raised on farms tend to have raised immune systems, presumably so would any culture that lives in a similar environment from birth)

But correlating that to not needing to take action to slow the spread of covid is an utter fallacy. I'd also add that Ethiopia is a country with an HIV epidemic, which I'm fairly certain must share comorbidity with COVID.

That said, if no one else in Ethiopia is or is able to take any precautions, one person wearing or not wearing a mask won't have any impact whatsoever on spread.

I think, generally speaking, the correct response to this sort of thing is that when travelling abroad during something like a pandemic the expectation is that you respect local customs and local rules in regards to how the pandemic is being handled. It is not on us to impose our strategies on them. It is their home, their country, and we should respect that while visiting it.

Karim Hosein's picture

Right! Because science changes as it crosses political borders, correct?!?

Yes, we do need to respect others cultures and laws, but we do not get to ignore science.

[EDIT] Wait. I think I misconstrued your point. I think we agree. Sorry.

P.s., Ethiopian laws can give him up to two years imprisonment for not wearing a mask. [/EDIT]

Ryan Cooper's picture

If another country's approach to virus control is unscientific then the appropriate choice is to not visit that country. (and for our home country to not allow visitors from that country)

Mark Fa'amaoni's picture

"If another country's approach to virus control is unscientific"

Population of Ethiopia: 109 million. 1965 Covid-19 deaths.

Population of the United States of America: 328 million. 357,000 Covid-19 deaths.

I think its quite clear which country's approach to virus control is unscientific. Yes: people are taking precautions in Ethiopia. No: Ethiopia doesn't have a significantly lower death rate because "rural Ethiopians have much stronger immune systems than people in the industrialized world." Spreading that sort of nonsense will get people killed and it should be called out. This isn't about "respecting customs." And local rules say that he should have been wearing a mask.

Karim Hosein's picture

So, you are saying that we ought not visit the USofA?

Karim Hosein's picture

«…by apologizing that the post came across as insensitive and inappropriate….»
At what point did he apologise? He admitted (to an extent) what he did, but there was no apology.

That would be like the ambassador at the UN who said something inappropriate about another ambassador. When told that if it is true, he needs to apologise, he said, “I am sorry [comma???] it is true [comma???] I said it.”

What exactly did the ambassador say? “I am sorry that you think I need to apologise, but it is true what I said,” or, “I am indeed sorry. Yes, it is true that I said it,” or, “I am sorry that I offended you with the truth. There, I said it, now bugger off!” Only one of those statements comes off as anything close to an apology.

In this particular case, he even brushed aside the notion that his words were offensive and inappropriate, by qualifying them with, “my post came across as….” It suggests that he does not believe it was offensive nor inappropriate, but, “…since at least one person feels that way, I better delete it before other people start thinking the way you did. Thanks for catching that for me. You are a good pal!”

I personally do not care if an apology *IS* sincere, but I do care whether or not it *SEEMS* sincere. This does not even seem like an apology at all.

As for the “greater immunity” thing, this is in no way supported by science. What has been supported is that, in places of great heat, great UV light, and little humidity, the inactive virus does not seem to remain viable on non-porous surfaces beyond three minutes, making it just a little harder to contract Covid-19 by non-direct contact of the inactive virus.

This does NOT mean that breathing one's droplets of active Covid-19 cultures into the nose of another human being who lives in a hot, dry, UV doused environment is at all okay, nor that one cannot spread the virus by non-direct contact of a porous surface. The same study shows in the same environment that inactive virus can remain viable on porous surfaces for more than 24 hours, and the active virus, (fresh culture breathed out of an infected person), can remain viable for several days.

Indeed, the study was done when it was noticed that the rate of spread in the tropics and especially equatorial climates seems to be slower. However, the death rate is these climates remain just as high, once the virus is contracted. The high temperatures, low humidity, and high UV presence, does NOT seem to affect outcomes of those infected.

Therefore, it is not a matter of immunity, but a matter of a slight reduction in vectors. The science still holds, and non-science photographers ought not be drawing silly non-scientific conclusions from non-scientific observations of small populations. When the scientists saw the same observations, they actually conducted scientific tests, in controlled environments. (Then a certain administration from a certain developed country, took the study, mis-quoted it, and drew non-scientific conclusions, which left a certain head of state to suggest ridiculous treatment options on national television).

Arthur q's picture

I have been searching since 1971 to find the beneficial effects of face masks. The only hard data that I can find is that they cause spectacles to mist up.

The relationship of masks to life is the same as lingerie to sex. The soon it comes off the quicker you can enjoy the activity.

Dan Jefferies's picture

Trump lost ya know. Do try harder.

Arthur q's picture

I find it interesting that the range of quotes that can be picked up reading news media comments range from the asinine to the abysmal. However occasionally I have found one that is worth using, as shown by my post. Yours is not one worth using.

Dan Jefferies's picture

lol... the sting will go away over time. It's ok to grieve.

Arthur q's picture

What sting? Who did the sting? I am not American. Your political upsets belong to you, and are not part of this thread.
And no, Trump did exactly what he planned. Did you?

John Ohle's picture

So you would be OK with the doctor operating on you or a loved one without a mask? All trained medical practitioners wear masks. Ever wonder why?

Arthur q's picture

I did many operations without face masks under constrained conditions, with no increase in infections. In one of my hospitals the goats had to be chased out of the operating theatre before work could start, air conditioning involved opening the window to the outside. some of my best work was done there. the major cause of severe trauma was crocodile bites.
You may be surprised with how much in Medicine is done because of habit rather than because of scientific evidence.

Kirk Darling's picture

"No increase in infections" compared to what? Are you saying there were no more infections under those conditions than in any other operating room in more sterile conditions?

Or are you just saying you couldn't pin down the infections you got to the lack of face masks or the goats or a dozen other possible causes?

Arthur q's picture

No infections in patients who did not already have an infection. It was the only hospital in about 100km so all patients who had an infection would have been seen.

Karim Hosein's picture

If your spectacles are misting up, you are wearing it wrong. A properly worn face mask will keep all air-borne droplets within the mask, or within the exhaust valve. (I wear spectacles).

Hong Kong has great data.

A recent study (with controls, and a large sample) was done in the US to illustrate how a properly worn mask can stop the spread of the virus from an infected person. They actually did the tests using various masks from OR grade, N-95, construction dusts masks, down to plain cloth masks, handkerchiefs/bandannas a T-shirt around the face, and nothing at all.

If you could find no data, you have not put any effort into your searches.

P.s., many masks being sold with exhaust valves are not good, as many of them, the exhaust valve causes the expulsion of air-borne droplets.

Arthur q's picture

Very idealistic theory, does not fit real life.
A mask worn as an isolated device will give no protection to the wearer or the others close by, and may increase danger by filling up with snot which is then expelled as an aerosol during speech and coughing.
The best fitting N95 masks will leak after a short time of use, with 20 minutes being about the average. If the wearer sweats during work it will be shorter.

This is not a photographic subject so I shall not answer any more questions.

Karim Hosein's picture

«…danger by filling up with snot….»
If one's mask is filling up with snot, one ought not be out in public.

«…expelled as an aerosol during speech….»
Er…. Ah…. You do know that is what the mask prevents, right? And even if one has a mask which is soaking wet, any aerosol expelled from the mask will go a far less distance than what is expelled from the mouth. Tiny droplets go far. large droplets do not.

«…and coughing.»
Er… ah…. You do cough into your elbow, downward facing, away from people, right? If not, you do have other issues for which a mask is of no use to anyone.

«The best fitting N95 masks….»
N95 masks, (as do all masks), have a time limit on them, and it is not 20 minutes. To reiterate, if it is leaking, you are wearing it wrong.

«This is not a photographic subject….»
Then why did you bring it up in the first place? [ASIDE] You also bought up lingerie and sex. [/ASIDE]

But good point. I am done.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

What a racist idiot this guy is.