BioNTech: Stop Talking About Their ‘Migration Background’

What at first sounds like a compliment, in fact, builds a mental frame separating immigrants from everybody else, when such backgrounds have become a self-evident part of our lives.

When it turned out in October that BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines were highly successful in clinical trials, something foreseeable happened. 

Many media celebrated the fact that the company’s founders are Germans of Turkish origins. “Look here, migrants are saving our lives. Migration works,” was the message. 

It left me uneasy. 

I understand that the German-Turkish community – often subjected to condescension in Germany – celebrated the story. 

Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türecki represent scientific excellence and business success at the highest level. Their talents help pave a way out of a global crisis, which many in Germany now describe as the biggest crisis since Second World War.

Beyond that community, the trumpeting of the migration aspect of the BioNTech story somehow mimics racist reflexes, only from the opposite perspective. 

Whenever something bad happens, racists try to find out if a migrant can be blamed. If we now look behind every ‘good story’ to see whether a migrant can be credited, we get into a mindset of “balance-sheeting” whether people or groups are more or less useful. 

That approach not only defies human dignity, it also builds a mental frame of neatly separating those with a migration background versus others, when by now such backgrounds have become a self-evident part of many people, especially in Western Europe.

Türecki and Şahin are not eager to stress this aspect. They would rather talk about the science.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel they have been cautious on any questions regarding migration. “We employ people from more than 60 countries. A migration background is completely normal for us, it plays no role,” said Şahin. 

Türecki stated that “identification is nothing negative, but the polarisation of identity is bad. That’s what we want to avoid at all costs.” 

The less obvious – but equally inspiring – part of the BioNTech story lies elsewhere. 

It is the willingness of the pair to make major, bold decisions at shortest notice, well before the mainstream follows. 

Foresight

Less than one year ago, on 24 January, Şahin read an article about the Covid-19 spread in China in a medical journal. 

Knowing that the virus can spread before symptoms emerge and being versed in mathematical modelling, he instantly understood that the epidemic could not be contained and would spread around the world. 

Within days the two convinced the company’s investors and staff to completely change direction and focus on developing a vaccine against a virus that was still little known and at a time when Germany’s Robert-Koch-Institute and other European expert bodies considered the risks of Covid-19 to be low. 

They read the data and they saw the signs. 

The Chinese authorities had just cordoned off the eight-million strong city of Wuhan, while most of Europe remained unconcerned. 

They knew that their new technology had something precious to offer: it can be developed much faster than traditional vaccines. Nevertheless, they took a tremendous risk, putting their entire company on the line in a race that could just as well end in failure.

Europe should be encouraged by Türecki’s and Şahin’s boldness. We have not dealt well with the pandemic. 

We must be ready to learn, to adapt and to change. Many media spent last summer celebrating how well Germany coped with the crisis, ignoring how all EU member states failed in one way or another, compared to other democracies like Japan, Taiwan or South Korea.

Little Start-Up Culture

BioNTech’s story is also revealing about a continuing lack of a start-up culture in Europe. 

The founders stress that they were particularly lucky to find European investors early on for a business that was based on commercialising new and, at the time, untested scientific methods. They say that it is much easier to get such ideas off the ground in the US. 

There may be one way in which “migration background” plays a role in all this. 

People who have roots in various countries or have lived in several places tend to know that “normalcy” is a relative concept. What is normal here may not be normal elsewhere. It was normal yesterday that Europe had no pandemics, but it does not mean it is still normal tomorrow.

A more developed sense for the possibility of change is a useful quality for entrepreneurship. 

The ability for cross-cultural comparison increases the sense for business opportunity, according to a study on entrepreneurship. In most countries, people with a history of migration are more likely to start a business than others, also because they are more likely to experience discrimination in many parts of the labour market.

The idea that people, their ideas and business move freely in the EU’s common market reflects a positive view of migration, but it has been overshadowed by the ritualistic exchanges over more or less migration into the EU. 

The story of BioNTech is a powerful reminder that cross-border experience is a strong driver of business. 

Today it is a self-evident part of any bigger business. Any dynamic company in Europe would subscribe to Şahin statement: “A migration background is completely normal for us”. 

Hopefully a migration background at the top of such companies will also become more normal.


This article first appeared in the Opinion section of the EU Observer. It appears here courtesy of the author. 

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