South Africa has done the world a favour. It has demonstrated transparency and responsibility by immediately alerting the world, early and with scientific data, to the dangers of a new variant now called Omicron. It has saved lives.
But instead of being acknowledged for its professionalism and ethical behaviour or offered a mutual plan to investigate and combat the variant, South Africa received a swift and resounding slap. Travel bans, not just affecting South Africa, but six additional countries from the southern part of the continent have been put into effect.
There is now a rising fear that eventually all African nations are going to be impacted by this hasty and emotional response by the world, especially by the West. It is time to pause, take a deep breath and assess the situation rationally. Knee-jerk reactions are not in the interest of anyone.
Botswana’s government, for example, is indicating that the B1.1. 529 cases reported last week actually originated from diplomats who were visiting from elsewhere. It would be more prudent to find out in greater detail the facts about the variant than lashing out in blind panic. Where did it originate from? How infectious is it? How is it different from the Delta variant?
Punishing the region, and by extension the entire continent of 1.2 billion people, is not just a short-sighted move, underpinned by neo-colonial, maybe even racist, attitudes. Especially as it ignores the reality of vaccine inequity. The rich countries have not only had access to the vaccines, they have even built-up stockpiles for later use. Meanwhile, most countries on the African continent have only managed to vaccinate 10 percent of their populations because of availability issues. Recall that mantra from 2020, that “Nobody is safe unless everyone is safe”? So much for that.
Travel bans are going to damage lives and livelihoods in industries that are only now slowly recovering, in particular, tourism in Africa. The problem lies in the ignorance in much of the world about Africa. So much so that there are even people in the West who tend to believe that Africa is a country, and not a continent. They can differentiate between New York and Mexico, but not between Botswana and Kenya.
Four things need to happen immediately:
First, lift what essentially is a blockade. This is not the “African virus,” just as the original strain from Wuhan is not a “Chinese virus” or the Delta strain is not an “Indian virus” nor the Beta strain a “UK virus.”
Second, immediately address the issue of vaccine inequity. Rich countries, especially those in the West, need to walk their talk when it comes to helping the developing world inoculate their populations.
Third, dispatch scientists to South Africa to work with professional, competent South African scientists, to understand this new variant and provide adequate sensible information to the public.
Fourth, stop blaming the messenger and instead heed the message.
Tuko Pamoja, as we say in Swahili. We are together.
The views of this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of Mastercard Foundation.