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