Omicron travel bans on Africa: “The history of racism, inequalities and discrimination is interwoven with the science”

Members of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) based in Africa have said that the world's response to the discovery of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has been a prism that reveals continuing discrimination against the continent.

On 24 November 2021, scientists at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, reported the new COVID-19 variant to the World Health Organization (WHO). Within hours, the West singled out several African countries for travel bans, including those that had yet to record an Omicron case. The international media too has shown a shameful alacrity in calling it the "African virus". While the origins of the Omicron variant are still unclear, reports suggest that it was perhaps in the Netherlands before South Africa. And once scientists began looking, they found the variant in several countries, including European nations that detected it in people who had not travelled to South Africa. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that Omicron has been detected in 77 countries by now “and the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”

“In the eyes of the West, Africa is the seat and departure point of several diseases such as syphilis, sleeping sickness, tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera as was the case during colonial times,” said Serge Daho, ICT4D researcher at APC network member PROTEGE QV in Cameroon. “What we are witnessing today through Omicron is simply the continuation of the continent’s marginalisation.” Other commentators have also pointed out the colonial mindset of travel bans, reminiscent of how segregation kept “white” officials away from Africans who were considered to be carrying various diseases.

In fact, South Africa has a stellar infrastructure of immunological expertise, genome sequencing and health research capacities, built over decades as it has fought high disease rates of AIDS and tuberculosis. During the COVID-19 pandemic it has led not only in identifying variants but also in vaccine trials. And its swiftness and alertness have helped the world get a head start on combating this dangerous new variant.

We have to see the West’s refusal to recognise this African preparedness in an ongoing context of discrimination. James Nguo, regional director at APC member Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) in Kenya, said a “superiority complex among the Northern nations” is at the root of the refusal to recognise African competence. Racheal Nakitare, projects coordinator at APC member International Association of Women in Radio and Television - Kenya (IAWRT-K) added that “the history of racism, inequalities and discrimination is interwoven with the science. It also intersects with other forms of inequality such as gender and poverty. The rich nations use their financial muscle to bully the developing and underdeveloped nations.” And John Dada, director and founder of APC member Fantsuam Foundation in Nigeria, echoed these sentiments: “Africa still suffers the burden of colonialism in spite of the cosmetics of power transfer most of the countries here. The world finds it easy to turn a blind eye to the unconscionable exploitation of African resources in order to continue to feed the West.” 

A joint civil society statement, to which APC is a signatory, stated in June that we urgently need “international solidarity in addressing all intellectual property barriers to the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. […] If we are to properly handle the current pandemic and further waves of the current pandemic and avoid a new one, we need to put people’s health and rights – and not intellectual property and profit – at the centre.” This is particularly relevant now as a new dimension of the pandemic has emerged with the international response to Omicron.

A bluntly worded editorial in the medical journal Lancet, written by a group of South African scientists, pointed out that the travel bans unjustly placed on South Africa will not only impact global solidarity today, it will also have terrible repercussions on information-sharing in future crises. The scientists said, “Rather than applaud [South African scientists'] generosity and openness, travel bans have had the opposite effect and could be damaging to the health response, economy, and freedom of movement. This situation puts countries such as South Africa in a difficult position, and potentially threatens future willingness to share information and weaken global solidarity.” This is already happening. Within days of reporting the Omicron mutation and the subsequent travel bans, South African scientists were unable to import the chemicals needed to continue tracking the virus properly.

Dada called the imbalanced global perspective on these issues “astounding”. “If COVID was first discovered in Africa, the West would have locked out Africa and thrown the keys away,” he said. “But even with glaring scientific data on its origins and spread, the kneejerk, self-serving reactions of banning travels from Africa exposes a most jaundiced and uninformed reaction to an issue that demands global concern.” 

One dimension of global vaccine inequity is stark and impossible to miss. Rich nations are stockpiling vaccines. Even when African nations like Botswana have offered to buy vaccines at a higher cost than other nations, they have still not got supplies. These inequities include a resistance to allowing indigenous African vaccine production. As Dada added, “The facilities of genome sequencing in South Africa that has been painstakingly built over the years in response to the various earlier tropical epidemics of the continent remains a bridge head that can be upscaled to empower Africa to develop its own vaccine industry. Africa vaccine production capacity needs to be quickly ramped up and disseminated throughout the continent.” 

APC members also introspected on the history of the continent’s lukewarm response to vaccines, and pointed to it as another critical aspect of this now-avoidable public health crisis. Africa as a continent has a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 7.35%, and several nations are at around 1%. “Since their creation last year, vaccines have become more available but distribution and other problems have become more apparent,” said Daho. “For instance, the idea that people should trust in God and rely on traditional African remedies to prevent getting the virus is widespread in Cameroon. We even heard some people say that it was a virus intended to exterminate the population of the continent.” Daho went on to add that much of the distrust about vaccines has been shaped by social networks and related fears of colonialism. Nakitare echoed this line of thought when she said, “One of the biggest challenges facing our people is misinformation and disinformation. In Kenya, for example, lies have been peddled around conspiracy theories behind the administration of vaccines. The distrust is based on historical injustices.” 

The Omicron variant has prompted the World Trade Organization (WTO) to indefinitely postpone its ministerial conference, which will further delay prospects for an agreement to waive vaccine patent rights. Delaying such waivers unfortunately will only create new COVID variants. Nguo said, “African leaders and social movements need to advocate for removal of patents on COVID-19 vaccines or join hands through bodies such as the African Union and take a common position towards developing an ‘African’ vaccine, and deploy the same in their populace.” He thinks that African leadership needs to create global campaigns and get the support of developing nations with large populations such as India and parts of Latin America. Nakitare added, “African leaders need to create a conducive environment for local scientists to develop local vaccines. Africa has great brains that work hard but are seldom recognised because they work under scientists from the West.” And Dada wondered that “The Omicron debacle has long been predicted and was expected in all objective scientific circles: unless everyone is vaccinated no one is safe, and Omicron is merely a sign of worse to come until the world gets its act together. Why is this aspect of self-interest so elusive to Western politicians?” 

Is there a way to get other nations to follow South Africa’s example of sharing their knowledge instead of hoarding it? Daho said this is possible “only by reminding everyone that the pandemic will not end for anyone, anywhere until it is controlled in every country. This must be a concerted effort involving all and each nation around the globe to accelerate studies and bolster the response to the pandemic and its endless variants.”

Dada pointed out that everyone could see that the discrimination against Africa could only lead to a backlash that will devastate everyone in the world. He said, “Just as climate change is proving that the entire humanity is living under the same tent and will all be afflicted by the devastation of climate changes, so is the COVID pandemic. The West continues to be myopic in its treatment of these issues, pretending that the issues are largely of African making.” 

The civil society statement that APC signed has clearly stated that “stopping this tragedy requires solidarity and cooperation in promoting health as a human right, and a sensible use of digital technologies to that end. […] Governments have in their hands the possibility to lift the intellectual property barriers that hinder universal access to health care and free COVID-19 vaccination for all.”

Nakitare concluded powerfully that “knowledge is power and the only time the world will claim some semblance of equality is when important decisions like WTO conferences are inclusive. We must deracialise society and work towards inclusion and humanity.”

 

Image: Protective medical mask on globe closeup by Nenad Stojkovic via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

 

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