Anger simmers over Omicron travel bans in southern Africa

Omicron, initially taken over in Botswana, has reignited the debate over the effectiveness of tight border closures and sparked outrage that South Africa’s transparency in reporting the strain has led to what the region sees as its scapegoat.

South African scientists were the first to identify the variant, which has since been detected in countries around the world. It has now emerged that Omicron was already present in Europe before travel bans were announced. It is not yet known where Omicron was born.

Yet travel restrictions have directly targeted southern Africa, including countries that have yet to find evidence of the new variant. This has sparked a wave of anger from African politicians and public health officials, exasperated by the lack of support from the West, which they believe is now discriminating against countries still desperate for vaccine doses.

The list has rapidly expanded since the weekend, despite warnings from researchers that the threat posed by the new variant is still unclear. And with it, also the criticisms.

Travel-restricting countries include the United States, which has barred entry for travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.

“It is deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing. We call on all countries to take rational and proportionate risk reduction measures in line with international health regulations,” said the director-general of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. in his opening remarks at a WHO briefing on Wednesday.

Sleeping in the car, teaching on Zoom and various cancellations: these travelers are blocked due to restrictions related to the Omicron variant

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO chief technical officer on Covid-19, said the travel bans have limited the ability of South African researchers to ship virus samples out of the country, “so there are other implications for these travel bans which are out there”.

“We don’t want to see countries penalized for sharing information, because this is the way WHO and our partners, this is how we do assessments and how we provide advice,” he said.

In a speech to the UN World Tourism General Assembly in Madrid on Wednesday, South African Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu condemned the bans and called Spanish officials for making it “impossible” for southern African representatives. participate due to new travel restrictions.

“For reasons unknown to us, several countries have continued to impose travel restrictions on South Africa. Surprisingly, Spain hosting this UNWTO General Assembly, with all immunities bestowed on UN organizations, has also entered most of the SADC countries on the red list, making it impossible for my colleagues from these countries to participate in this important event “, Sisulu said.

Africa’s anger over the bans has spread internationally as hundreds of people have also expressed anger on social media.

“This is the foreseeable negative consequence of reckless travel bans (which should be lifted immediately). South Africa deserves praise for alerting the world, not punishment,” tweeted Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Amesh Adalja.

A stereotype of Africa

“There is no escape from the fear of viruses that exist in Africa,” Remi Adekoya, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of York in England, told CNN. “It conjures up all sorts of terrible images in people’s minds about Ebola-like disasters.”

According to the authors of a report from the COVID-19 initiative on the public health emergency, fear-related behaviors played an important role in shaping the 2013-2016 West African Ebola outbreak.
The Netherlands claims that the Omicron variant was already in the country earlier than previously thought

Images of the snake-like appearance of the Ebola virus and depictions of menacing bats remained deeply rooted in observers’ consciousness long after the outbreak ended, according to the report. When new viruses are found on the continent, it can trigger panic.

“When fear, the ‘motivational state’, turns into actions, individual fear behaviors manifest at an aggregate level and can spread rapidly and contagiously, epidemically, among groups of people who share fear and observe the behaviors of each other “.

Adekoya says these fears date back to 19th-century mythization of Africa in movies and in the news.

“‘The dark continent’ still resonates psychologically around the world and is why any virus or disease seen as coming from Africa will be instinctively feared,” he said. “If the variant had been discovered somewhere else, the reaction would have been very different.”

Economic damage

Studies show travel bans slow the spread of viruses by only a few weeks, and the WHO has repeatedly said that travel restrictions cripple economies and dissuade countries from stepping forward on new viruses and variants.

Adekoya fears that travel bans could be “completely catastrophic for African economies”. To combat this, he suggests leaders stand up to their international counterparts.

“Africa needs to exert maximum diplomatic pressure on Western governments to get scientific evidence on what exactly is going on. What is this variant? How deadly is it? And how long does this travel ban have to be in place?”

According to Mara Pillinger, Senior Associate at O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC, travel bans have more to do with a lack of political appetite for alternatives and less to do with taking concrete measures to stop the spread of the virus.

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“When governments put in place travel bans, it is symbolic: they are trying to give the impression that they are taking action to protect their own,” Pillinger told CNN. “But partial measures aren’t effective. It’s like plugging a hole in a leaking bucket but letting the other holes keep leaking.”

The explanation government leaders have given in support of the travel bans is that it buys time, he continued. “But we already know what we need: a combination of vaccines, masks, better ventilation, testing and social distancing where possible.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech to the nation on Sunday that he was “deeply disappointed” by what he considers “completely unwarranted” actions by the West.

“The travel ban is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” he said. “The only thing the travel ban will do is further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond and even recover from the pandemic.”

During a joint press briefing with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday, Ramaphosa again urged the bans to be lifted.

Inequity of vaccines

A new variant was inevitable as long as parts of the world remain largely unvaccinated, Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance of the African Union.

“We have to call the world to this. They are excluding and mistreating us,” he said. “Africa needs to find a collective voice. Our leaders need to wake up, recognize the geopolitical influence they have and recognize that they can do something right now.”

Only 6% of the more than 8 billion vaccines administered globally have been in Africa.

As of October, less than 10% of African countries are expected to meet their vaccination targets, according to the WHO. Fifty million vaccines arrived in Africa in October (double the amount shipped from the previous month) but only 77 million Africans were fully vaccinated on a continent with a population of over 1 billion.

At the onset of the pandemic, Africa was applauded in some quarters for its relatively low cases and deaths, based largely on strong political responses.

A December 2020 report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change also attributed the successes “in some cases to innovations that draw on previous infectious disease experiences and the continent’s growing technological strength.”
However, with the increase in cases in parts of Africa last January – around the same time that vaccines became available – wealthier nations have amassed huge amounts to vaccinate their own populations, leaving countries behind. developing.

Some critics argue that the low vaccination rates on the continent stem from vaccine hesitation, a theory that Alakija describes as “drooling.” Point out that many countries have received small amounts to begin with.

“There is hesitation in vaccines in the United States as well, but that hasn’t prevented the availability of the vaccines, so the theory doesn’t hold up,” Alakija said.

While procurement challenges remain an issue in Africa, vaccine hesitation is a stark reality and “remains a major problem in many countries, including South Africa,” Michael Head, senior researcher in global health, told CNN’s Ivana Kottasová. at the University of Southampton. .

The path forward

COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), an initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines, admitted in October that Africa’s goal of vaccinating 40% of its population is highly unlikely in part attributed to growing demands for vital vaccination supplies, including syringes.
“The huge gap in vaccine equity is not closing fast enough. It is time for vaccine-producing countries to open their doors and help protect those facing the greatest risk,” the regional director said in a statement. WHO for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti. this year.

On Monday, Team Europe, a coalition of EU institutions, pledged to donate 500 million doses of the AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to COVAX to low-income economies in the fight against Covid-19.

Donor countries include Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said on Monday that the first of these donations have already been shipped to Egypt, Nigeria, Laos and Syria, while others will be delivered to countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden told the National Institutes of Health Thursday that the new variant will be fought with “science and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

But in Africa, some experts say South Africa’s “science and speed” to alert the international community to Omicron has led to “chaos and confusion.”

The road ahead for Africa, says Adekoya, “must be enormous economic enrichment so that it can extricate itself from this nonsense of being at the mercy of others.”

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