Sunday Times

SA must fight for its place in world of Covid apartheid


Agraphic in The Times in London this past week painted an unhappy picture. It divided the world up into areas where British citizens can and cannot travel, from green through amber to red. SA is in the red zone. “Direct travel banned,” read the wording on top of the map of the world. “Britons who have been in red countries in the previous 10 days have to quarantine in a hotel on arrival in the UK. There are already 35 red-list countries.”

We were one of them. The green list, where you don’t even have to do a test upon returning to the UK, included Spain, Cuba and Portugal.

Portugal? Portugal a few months ago was on the red list. What happened wasn’t that the British suddenly developed a soft spot for the Portuguese. It was that the government in Lisbon fought back against its blacklisti­ng and won. Here in SA we seem to have accepted our lot without a fight.

Covid-wise, SA is currently in better nick than the US, France, Italy and the Netherland­s, to name a few. And, indeed, the UK itself.

But there is a gathering threat that we could soon find ourselves on the wrong side of a wall through which it may take years to pass again. The big economies are beginning seriously to talk about passports of vaccinatio­n that will stratify who may travel, enter a restaurant or pub, or watch live sport.

Who will be eligible? A

Washington Post report says that: “Taking time to get the credential­ing project right is very, very important because this has a high likelihood of being either built wrong, used wrong or a bureaucrat­ic mess ... some of the considerat­ions include how to adjust for the spread of variants, how booster shots would be tracked and even questions about [how long it] lasts after getting a shot.”

Sadly, the complexity inherent in deciding who gets through the door and who doesn’t hasn’t stopped the rush.

The EU is working on a scheme.

The UK is debating one. Israel already has one. A Danish app will soon be widely available.

And once the world has settled on a new vaccine apartheid for everyone, what conditions would have to prevail in order for it to be dismantled? None that I can think of. Surveillan­ce and control, which are what a vaccine passport would be, would only get worse.

China already has a massively intrusive social credit programme in operation that can monitor payments of your utility bills, whether or not you jaywalk and how much you drink. Even Australia is inventing one.

But we are on the UK’s red list because of the dominant coronaviru­s variant here, 501Y.V2. The great hope is that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, given the go-ahead for wide use on Thursday, will work against it. The authoritie­s think it will but, at a political level, they play a high-stakes game, giving away a million doses of the AstraZenec­a vaccine because, in a tiny trial of 2,000 people, average age 31 and not at any serious risk, it failed to prevent mild disease. It is a barbaric decision.

The truth is we cannot know, even if every single South African is vaccinated by whatever extended deadline the government sets next, that any country currently blacklisti­ng us should lift their travel restrictio­ns to SA. The J&J shot tested 52% effective against moderate disease here in a trial that ran from early December to mid-March, and 82% efficient against severe disease.

But measures of efficiency are misleading. Pfizer, whose vaccine we are also buying, included only 800 South Africans in its trial. None of the people who were vaccinated caught Covid, while nine of its placebo group did.

Pfizer on Thursday claimed its vaccine was thus 100% effective against 501Y.V2. Will our sources of tourism so meekly accept that our scary variant has been stilled by these first-generation potions?

Social and economic inequality in the world were bad enough before Covid. The elite that gets to decide who travels where is way beyond our reach and no government plan to revive our sad economy can get traction without them. Our failure adequately to vaccinate is going to ruin many more lives yet. Yes, there’ll be a great big recovery one day — a good old South African consumer boom — but it will be bitterswee­t.

The solace we probably under-appreciate here is that we are still a loud and open democracy.

We are free people with a hopelessly ineffectiv­e government that should, surely, you would have thought, given its manifold ethical, economic and political misfortune­s, be vulnerable to an effective opposition.

[In a world where] passports of vaccinatio­n will stratify who may travel, enter a restaurant or pub, or watch live sport ... Who will be eligible?

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