“The continent may be a stain, but it is not a stain on our consciousness. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are no longer in charge ” – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Africa.
On Thursday, November 25, 2021, the British government met to discuss a new variant of Covid-19, now anonymous. It was the first detected in Botswana, and soon after in South Africa. Credit to the work of world-class researchers and advanced viral genomic sequencing facilities.
After little deliberation, the British government placed Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho and Zimbabwe on its red list. Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia quickly followed. The World Health Organization (WHO) had not recommended any such action at this point, but once the UK took the plunge, the rest of the world saw its hand forced. Caution is understandable in such a situation, but it’s hard to see in this decision anything other than cynical politics on the part of a UK government that has been floundering for some time.
In the weeks leading up to the UK Prime Minister – documented racist Boris Johnson – had been pictured without a mask during a hospital visit and again in a crowded theater in London, this time with his mask on his chin. This same leader of a United Kingdom with on average more than 25,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day since August and with 36,500 new cases as of November 29. The same head of the country where masks will only be compulsory from November 30, and then only in shops and public transport.
Johnson and his government have come under pressure in recent months. Last year, after promising a normal Christmas, the Prime Minister was forced into a disastrous last-minute U-turn, canceling plans to allow families to see each other over the holidays. As people rushed home before the new rules took effect, stations flooded, social distancing flew out the window.
This year, despite tens of thousands of new cases a day and prominent scientists supporting tighter restrictions, Johnson once again promised his audience a real Christmas. Fifteen days later, the Prime Minister shone the spotlight on other countries, speaking of “storm clouds” over Europe, this time refusing to rule out any restrictions, which he has gently made. renamed “non-pharmaceutical interventions”.
Any sort of descent, however gentle, will damage a leader whose public image has recently been tarnished by a corruption scandal. Enter Omicron, stage side, the perfect foil. Any other restrictions needed in time for the holidays can be blamed on foreign invaders.
A team led by Zimbabwean scientist Dr Sikhulile Moyo first isolated the Omicron variant in samples taken from four foreign diplomats on November 11. The Botswana Ministry of Health and Welfare has not revealed their country of origin, at the risk of geopoliticizing the variant. Admirable of them, but the UK has no such skaam.
In early 2021, then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock went to great lengths to describe the beta variant as the “South African variant,” a public image work that meant countries foreigners could take responsibility for the failures of the British government. South Africa’s subsequent red list status cost the country around R800 million per month in lost tourism revenue and was needlessly enforced long after concerns about the beta variant subsided.
After a little over a month off the villain list, we once again find ourselves in a familiar and disheartening position. While the hype to our world-class infectious disease researchers represents an improvement over last time, travel bans and damage to the reputations of the countries involved remain severe and punitive.
Yes, Omicron calls for careful monitoring and research, a task our researchers will surely accomplish. Yes, Omicron has the upper hand over the Delta variant, but that’s against the backdrop of a relatively low overall infection count and a paltry 24% of the country vaccinated. No, travel bans are not entirely unjustified, but in our interconnected world, they are are of limited effectiveness and in this case, have been applied in an unbalanced manner to African countries.
In a strange exercise in confirmation bias, travelers returning from these “at risk” destinations are rigorously tested while those from others are not. As African countries grapple with the outrageous bans, Omicron has been identified in more than a dozen others, with evidence of community transmission already underway. The horse ran away.
Currently, we only know where Omicron was first identified and not where it originated from. What we are painfully reminded of is that vaccine inequality hurts us all: low- and middle-income countries like Botswana have been forced to overpay for vaccines and have yet to deliver them. Intellectual property restrictions, hoarding and price hikes are commonplace.
Maybe Omicron started in Africa, but greed and cynicism? Well the developed world wrote the playbook on that one. So if they are looking for someone to blame, they would do well to start looking home. DM