African leaders are hitting back against travel bans imposed over the Omicron variant, accusing wealthy countries of being hypocrites for delivering new restrictions instead of the vaccine doses the continent desperately needs.
Omicron, initially detected in Botswana, has reignited debate over the effectiveness of strict border closures and triggered outrage that South Africa’s transparency in reporting the strain has led to what the region sees as its scapegoating.
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 the travel bans were announced. It’s still not known where Omicron originated.
And yet the travel restrictions have been squarely aimed at southern Africa – including countries that have still not found evidence of the new variant. That has prompted a wave of fury from African politicians and public health officials, who are exasperated by the lack of support they’ve received from the West, which they say are now discriminating against countries still desperate for vaccine doses.
“We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did,” Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said in a Facebook post on Sunday. “But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on [Southern African Development Community] countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”
That list has rapidly expanded since the weekend, in spite of warnings from researchers that the threat the new variant poses is not yet clear. And with it, so has the criticism.
The countries restricting travel include the United States, which barred entry to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
“It’s 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, proportional risk reduction measures in keeping with international health regulations,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks at a WHO briefing Wednesday.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said that 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 that are out there.”
“We do not want to see countries penalized for sharing information, because this is how WHO and our partners, this is how we make assessments and how we provide advice,” she said.
In an address to the United Nations World Tourism General Assembly in Madrid on Wednesday, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Lindiwe Sisulu, condemned the bans and called out Spanish officials for making it “impossible” for southern African representatives to attend due to new travel restrictions.
“For reasons that remain unknown to us, several countries went on to impose travel restrictions on South Africa. Surprisingly, even Spain that hosts this UNWTO General Assembly, with all the immunities vested in UN organisations, red-listed most SADC countries, making it impossible for my colleagues in these countries to participate in this important event,” Sisulu said.
Africa’s rage over the bans spread internationally as hundreds also expressed anger on social media.
“This is the predictable negative consequence of the ill-advised travel bans (which should be rescinded 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 escaping that there is a 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 catastrophes.”
Fear-related behaviors played an important role in shaping the 2013–2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, according to authors of a Public Health Emergency COVID-19 Initiative report.
Images of the Ebola virus’ snake-like appearance and depictions of menacing bats remained deep-rooted in the consciousness of observers long after the outbreak ended, the report found. When new viruses are found on the continent, it can trigger panic.
“When fear, the ‘motivational state,’ transforms into actions, individual fear behaviors manifest at the aggregate level and may spread rapidly and contagiously, in epidemic fashion, among groups of persons who share the fear and observe the behaviors of each other.”
Adekoya says these fears date back to the 19th-century mythologization of Africa in films and news reports.
“‘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 was discovered somewhere else, then the reaction would have been much different.”
Studies show travel bans slow the spread of viruses by only a few weeks, and WHO has repeatedly conveyed that travel restrictions cripple economies and dissuade countries from coming forward about new viruses and variants.
Adekoya fears the travel bans could be “completely catastrophic for African economies.” To fight this, he suggests leaders stand up to their international counterparts.
“Africa needs to apply maximum diplomatic pressure on Western governments to come up with scientific evidence about what exactly is going on. What is this variant? How deadly is it? And how long does this travel ban need to be in place?”
According to Mara Pillinger, a Senior Associate at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC, the 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.
“When governments institute travel bans, it’s symbolic – they’re trying to give the impression that they are taking action to protect their own,” Pillinger told CNN. “But partial measures are not effective. It’s like plugging one hole in a leaky bucket but allowing the other holes to keep leaking.”
The explanation government leaders have given in support of travel bans is that it buys time, she 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 an address to the nation Sunday that he was “deeply disappointed” by what he saw as “completely unjustified” actions by the West.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” he said. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”
During a joint press briefing with Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari Wednesday, Ramaphosa urged the bans again to be reversed.
A new variant was unavoidable as long as parts of the world remain largely unvaccinated, Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told CNN.
“We have to call the world out on it. They are excluding and mistreating us,” she 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 at this moment.”
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 hit their vaccination goals, according to WHO. Fifty million vaccines arrived in Africa as of October (double the amount shipped from the month before) but only 77 million Africans have been fully vaccinated in a continent with a population exceeding 1 billion.
At the onset of the pandemic, Africa was applauded in some quarters for its relatively low cases and deaths, based in large part on strong policy responses.
A December 2020 report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change also attributed the successes “in some cases to innovations drawing on previous experiences of infectious disease and the continent’s growing strength in technology.”
However, as cases surged across parts of Africa this past January – around the same time vaccines became available – wealthier nations hoarded massive amounts to vaccinate their own populations, leaving developing countries behind.
Some critics argue low vaccination rates on the continent stem from vaccine hesitancy, a theory Alakija describes as “balderdash.” She points out that many countries received small quantities to begin with.
“There is vaccine hesitancy in the United States, too, but that has not prevented vaccines from being available, so that theory does not hold water,” Alakija said.
While supply challenges remain an issue in Africa, vaccine hesitancy is a harsh reality and “remains a big problem in many countries, including South Africa,” Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told CNN’s Ivana Kottasová.
The path forward
COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), an initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines, admitted in October that Africa’s target to vaccinate 40% of its people is highly unlikely partially attributed to mounting demands for vital vaccination supplies, including syringes.
“The huge gap in vaccine equity is not closing anywhere near fast enough. It is time for vaccine manufacturing countries to open the gates and help protect those facing the greatest risk,” WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said in a statement earlier 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 lower-income economies in the fight against Covid-19.
The donor countries include Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovak Republic and Slovenia.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said Monday the first of these donations have already been shipped to Egypt, Nigeria, Lao PDR and Syria, with more set to be delivered to countries across Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden said at the National Institutes of Health on Thursday that the new variant would 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 about Omicron, led to “chaos and confusion.”
The path forward for Africa, says Adekoya, “must be one of huge economic enrichment so it can extricate itself from this nonsense of being at the mercy of others.”