Cape Times

Knee-jerk reaction to the Omicron variant – panic or discrimina­tion?

- AMIT JAIN Jain is the director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore

LAST week, South Africa detected a highly transmissi­ble variant of the coronaviru­s and decided to bring it to the attention of the world.

But instead of winning plaudits for its actions, what South Africa received in return was banishment as government­s around the world shut down their borders to visitors from southern Africa.

Whatever the rationale, to the Africans themselves, such an impulsive knee-jerk reaction to the Omicron variant is at best a sign of panic, and at worst smacks of discrimina­tion.

For the sake of argument, let us take both criticisms at face value. President Cyril Ramaphosa says the prohibitio­n of travel imposed on his citizens is “not informed by science”. He is right.

There is no evidence to show the new variant is any more deadly than the earlier one. Even the World Health Organizati­on (WHO) says there is nothing to suggest the symptoms associated with Omicron are any different to those from other variants.

What reason is there to believe that Omicron was not here among us already? It could have spread around the world way before the travel ban came into effect. If so, then putting southern Africa on a travel blacklist does look like an act of panic.

It may sound incredible, but transmissi­ble disease has a dark history of associatio­n with Africa. During the early age of colonisati­on, in the years before the discovery of penicillin, European expedition­s into Africa suffered catastroph­ic losses due to heat, humidity and disease.

In their diaries, colonial officials, treasure hunters, slave traders and religious evangelist­s wrote harrowing tales of death from malarial fever, cholera, and smallpox.

Their stories of suffering and adventure took such hold in Western imaginatio­n that by the time Africa was colonised, it had become a byword for death and dreaded disease.

It is an image of black Africa that has long since endured. Of the 13 countries and territorie­s now confirmed to have detected the presence of the Omicron virus, only two are African. Yet, it is South Africa that has borne the brunt of travel restrictio­ns.

But lest we get carried away, it is worth taking note that among the many countries to have put South Africa on the travel blacklist, at least three are African.

South Africa appears to have been punished for its honesty. But let us give the rest of the world the benefit of the doubt, for the moment.

The fact is that when it comes to battling diseases Africa’s record is dismal. Ninety percent of all deaths caused by malaria – a deadly mosquito-borne vector disease – occur in Africa.

The continent remains an incubator of communicab­le life-threatenin­g diseases. The Aids carrying HI-virus is believed to have originated in the western equatorial region of Africa.

Africa accounts for nearly 50% of all communicab­le disease fatalities worldwide. On average, Africans are about four-and-a-half times more likely to die from a transmissi­ble disease than people elsewhere. Given such a record, the global reaction to this new variant of the coronaviru­s was therefore entirely predictabl­e.

There are three lessons that Africa should take from this travel ban fiasco.

First, it needs to become self-sufficient in the production of life-saving medicines.

Second, government­s should shoulder more responsibi­lity to improve vaccinatio­n rates and not just leave it in the hands of civil society and internatio­nal aid organisati­ons.

Third, improve the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation. Unsafe water and inadequate sanitation create a conducive environmen­t for pathogens to multiply.

It is only when the continent succeeds in reducing the incidence of pandemic outbreaks that it will turn the page on its long and painful associatio­n with disease.

Perhaps then the world will no longer treat it as a pariah.

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