Editor’s Note: Warning, some of these Omicron images reports contain racist and offensive content.
How it Started:
The World Health Organization (WHO) identified a new coronavirus variation B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern on November 26 and named it Omicron. A day earlier, researchers in South Africa brought the mutation to the world’s notice, citing findings from the Network for Genomics Surveillance member laboratories.
Tulio de Oliveira, the South African scientist who headed the research that discovered the novel Omicron Covid-19 variation in the country, rapidly ran out of reagents; the chemicals required to sequence the genomes of positive test results in order to find additional cases of the variant, hence the reason for the variant announcement.
However, two days after his team’s findings were announced, De Oliveira’s ability to import the chemicals he needed to assist his country in tracking the Omicron variety was barred by the countries that supply them.
South Africa is instead, paying a price for excellence in detecting omicron with discrimination.
Developed nations had penalized them for their ability to find the new variant incredibly fast, as well as their government’s readiness — and guts — to share the data almost immediately with the rest of the world.
The World’s Response to the Omicron Discovery
A week after South Africa’s report, news broke that Europe had confirmed omicron cases before South Africa identified the variant; Several World news outlets ran racist headlines and cartoons regarding the highly contagious omicron variation, initially detected in Botswana and South Africa as an African sickness, rather than merely another version of the omicron, like the delta variant.
On Nov. 28, the Spanish newspaper La Tribuna de Albacete published a comic depicting the omicron variants as cartoon characters with brown skin and nappy hair, packed in a boat marked with a South African flag and approaching land with a European Union flag waving on its shores.
On the same day, the German newspaper Die Rheinpfalz published a front-page story with the headline “The virus from Africa is with us,” accompanied by a photo of two Black Africans.
And on Dec. 2, a Bangkok Post headline read, “Government hunts for African visitors.”
BBC World last week, for instance, referred to Omicron as the “Southern African variant” in live broadcasts.
Resulting Omicron Apartheid Travel Ban
Wealthy nations such as the US, the UK, France, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and a slew of others where Omicron has since been identified (in some cases with no ties to Africa) have not imposed travel restrictions on one another; only Africa bears that burden.
The European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom lead the globe in imposing blanket travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa. Despite the fact that the Omicron had been identified in South Africa and Botswana, the travel prohibitions targeted other southern African nations where no cases had been documented. Malawi, for example, has registered less than 20 new COVID-19 cases.
The first response of the Biden administration was to prohibit travel from eight African countries: South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. At that time, only two of the countries — South Africa and Botswana — had confirmed cases.
Biden announced that the new travel rules were to help protect Americans, Biden made no mention of easing the travel prohibition from southern Africa even though the variant has now been detected in dozens of countries, including the U.S. The ban also exempts U.S. citizens and permanent residents travelling from any of the 12 banned countries, plainly discriminating against Africans.
In the U.K., 11 African countries were added to its “red list” — places defined as high risk for new and emerging strains of coronavirus, with testing and quarantine requirements for arrivals. These 11 countries are but are not limited to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria.
Canada, on the other hand, has gone above and above. It has not only prohibited foreign visitors from Botswana, Egypt, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from entering Canada but has required Canadian citizens who have visited those countries to obtain a negative COVID molecular test from “a third country.”
Canada has also indicated that they do not trust Africa countries Covid-19 testing. Ironically, South Africa has one of the best-developed networks for molecular or PCR testing in the world — likely better than Canada — because the same technique is used for HIV viral load testing, for which the country has developed an exceptionally well-established infrastructure due to its high HIV onus over the last two decades. South Africa was thus able to initiate Covid-19 testing significantly sooner than many other nations at the onset of the Covid-19 epidemic.
In reaction to the variation, the European Union has asked member nations to restrict travel from southern Africa.
Meanwhile, Japan, Australia, and Israel have banned all foreign passengers especially from Africa countries, including Rwanda, an Africa country.
Thoughts on the Omicron Travel Apartheid
These kneejerk travels ban decisions were made when there was still little knowledge available about the transmissibility and severity of the Omicron variety, as well as its origins. The travel prohibition is not based on rational public health policy, but rather on long-held biases that continue to deny African citizens the right to mobility and healthcare. The origins of these sweeping travel prohibitions, which the WHO claims would not prevent Omicron spread, may be traced back to colonial eras and reflect distorted conceptions of Africa and Africans.
There appears to be a perceived frenzy to penalize African countries, thereby making them the epicentre of COVID-19, when this is far from reality.
Perceptions of Africa as a “source of disease” have also fuelled Western efforts, particularly by the media, to “blame” the Omicron variation on South Africa before sufficient evidence of its origin is revealed.
Or perhaps, this could be a clear case of the western world as always looking for ways to divert attention away from Western public health failures and rising numbers of infections; as seen with the resulting event of the Disease named “The Spanish Flu,” a disease that sprung in the US but whose symptoms were detected in Spain; or the case of HIV AIDS, which sprung from gay communities in the western world and is now largely referred to as the African sickness.
The omicron travel apartheid erases African health authorities and local health systems’ effort to contain the virus’s spread.
Interestingly, sequencing data from South Africa published in the journal Nature show that Europe was responsible for more than 80% of the early introductions of
SARS-CoV-2 infections in South Africa; Inconclusively, 45-60% of cases of the earlier Covid spread in Africa were reported from European countries. And, while most flights, regardless of nation, were halted across the world, Europe was not subjected to any discriminatory restrictions by any African countries.
Reactions from Organizations and World leaders on the Omicron Travel Apartheid
Northwestern University’s head of social justice, in disbelief, summed up the situation in a tweet: “Canada believes that while South Africa has a sophisticated enough public health infrastructure to sequence a new SARS variant before any other country, it still can’t trust the country to administer an accurate PCR test.”
In reaction to the Spanish cartoon, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted: “It pains me that shows of racism like this still plague the challenges facing the world today. Caricaturing people crammed in a boat bringing a virus to Europe is disgusting.”
Many experts say South African scientists deserve credit for their ability to quickly identify the risks stemming from the new variant.
South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation has said the country was being punished for its transparency. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the ministry said in a statement.
WHO’s Head of Emergencies Dr Michael Ryan had this to say: “We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,”
Despite the outrage expressed by many African governments, scientists, and international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) over the discriminatory restrictions, labelling them racist, unscientific, and counterproductive, not a single high-income country has revoked their bans.
Provoking views on the Covid-19 Vaccine
When talks of the Covid-19 vaccine sprung up, African nations participated in the testing and production of some of these medical technologies. A colonial legacy where larger numbers of African bodies were exploited for medical experiments in pursuit of cures for the Covid virus and various diseases without regard to their safety or best interest has remained significantly dominant.
Despite all of Africa’s contributions, there are still reports of vaccination shortages across the continent. European countries have refused to end the stockpiling of vaccines, share licences, technology, and know-how, and waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to Africa