- 03 Dec 21
“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness. We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”
As we face familiar headlines with the spread of the latest variant of concern, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has lambasted Western powers for their unfair treatment of Southern African nations.
The discovery of the Omicron variant prompted the implementation of unilateral travel bans by several countries; including the US, EU, and the UK. The policy was met with immediate backlash, both from individuals from Southern Africa and the wider international community. It was labelled as racist, unnecessarily punitive, and ineffective - especially given how numerous other variants had been allowed to spread worldwide without bans, such as Kent B117.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” Ramaphosa said in his first statement to the nations since the bans.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to damage the economies of the affected countries further and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic. These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.”
On Friday 26th of November, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 mutation B.1.1.529 a variant of concern.
By midday, the UK would add South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe to their red list - restricting all non-essential travel from the countries.
The act was unilateral and sweeping, banning the whole region while the variant had only been detected in the first two countries
The EU and US did not take long to imitate their British counterparts, taking the same broad-stroked approach to the restrictions. However, when cases were found in Hong Kong, Belgium or Israel, no such decisive action was taken. With every day that goes by, scientists have found the variant has already spread to more and more countries.
The UK, EU, and the US are now starting to consider more travel restrictions on different areas, but these new sanctions are being made with much more care and deliberation than the blanket ban imposed on southern Africa.
How effective are travel bans?
While many have criticised the travel restrictions as useless, discarding their efficacy completely would be disingenuous.
A recent study published in Science argues that these kind of bans can help slow the spread of COVID-19, though they do not stop them completely. The internal restrictions put in place by China at the very begging of the pandemic internally did not help much, slowing the spread of the disease by at most five days. But, according to the same study, international bans bough certain countries up to one month breathing time.
That being said, these types of travel bans cannot stop the spread completely. Eventually the diseases is going to brake through. A month of extra time can be vital. Restrictions can be put in place to diminish local transmission, hospitals and first responders can prepare, and so on. Yet, up until now, the grace period has mostly been squandered.
Part of it can be put down to inexperience with a pandemic (at least back in early 2020). There is also a reluctance by governments to impose heavy restrictions on their own citizens.
But according to CNN medical analyst Dr Jonathan Reiner, travel bans may also be partly responsible for the lax approach. These restrictions might end up creating ‘an illusion of protection.’ By cutting off the potential source of the diseases, politicians may think that they have shielded off their country from contagion. On the contrary, the virus still spreads.
These kind of impulsive, drastic travel bans might have made sense in February 2020 when we weren't even sure what we were dealing with. Yet, this time, we’re not discovering a new disease. It’s not even the first moment of encountering a new strain. We’ve gone through four Greek letters, and we’re probably going to burn through a lot more before this pandemic is over. Shutting the world down each time we come across a new variant of concern is unsustainable, arguably.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” said the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti.
“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognised by over 190 nations.”
Taking travel restrictions off the table as a tool in fighting the pandemic would be naïve. If used appropriately, they can help buy breathing time. But they ought to be used as a surgical knife, not a hammer wildly whacking around.
Bans as a disincentive to research
As a country that has been fighting its own epidemic for decades, South Africa has some of the world's top epidemiologists and scientists. In June of 2020, the country started Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, connecting local laboratories with international research institutions around the world.
The discovery of the omicron variant should have been hailed as a grand success for the organisation, essentially operating as an early detection radar. Instead, the world shut its doors to the country without a word.
“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness,” South Africa’s tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu said. “We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”
Western Nations often talk of collaborative efforts to fight the pandemic, but actions often speak louder than words. And what should nations take from the early discovery of a potentiality dangerous variant when such actions result in being isolated and abandoned?
What incentives do countries have for developing similar detection systems when it could end up damaging their economy and shutting them off from the world?
Wake up call
The blanket ban of a whole geographic sub-region is bad, especially when that region that has already suffered so much at the hands of Western powers, but it’s not the main point we should be taking away from this. In his address to the nation, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa hit the nail on the head.
“The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue,” Ramaphosa said. “We have said that vaccine inequality not only costs lives and livelihoods in those countries that are denied access but that it also threatens global efforts to overcome the pandemic.”
According to the World Bank, less than 2% of people living in Africa’s low-income countries have been fully vaccinated. In many countries, vaccination rates are still below 1%. In comparison, over 60% of the population in advanced economies is vaccinated.
Southern Africa is fairing better than many of the poorer countries in the continent, but even still most of the countries affected by the blanket travel ban have a vaccination rate still considerably lower than 40%.
Early in the pandemic every new piece of advertisement loved to stress how we were ‘All in this together.’ It may have been comforting in the first few weeks, but it quickly grew bothersome and somewhat ironic coming from corporations which saw an increase in profit through the epidemic.
But behind the corporate pandering, the message was more true than they understood.
It doesn’t matter if we get vaccination rates even up to 100% if there are areas that remain widely unvaccinated.
"Africa doesn't have enough vaccines because Western countries bought it all up and even hoarded those vaccines. So they are part of the reason why this new variant emerged, because there's a continent that didn't have enough access to vaccines," explained Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, a media outlet based in Johannesburg.
Hoarding, queue-skipping, and intellectual property rights
At the beginning of this year, much of the focus was on the limited supply of vaccines. Factories in the EU weren't producing as much as promised, countries were blocking exports to keep the vaccines to themselves, doses were being bought illegally through the black market.
There was greed, back handed dealings, and primal behaviour. It was an unpleasant sight, but it was understandable. There was a limited supply for a product everyone wanted to get their hands on.
What doesn't make sense is why wealthy countries are acting just as selfishly now. The United States alone has thrown away over 15 million vaccines since March. The UK has stockpiled over 210 million spare coronavirus vaccines. Clearly, we're not dealing with a situation of scarcity any more.
As of right now wealthy nations have delivered only 14 per cent of the 1.8 billion doses promised, while pharmaceutical companies trailing behind with only 12 per cent of the doses they pledged to help low- and middle-income countries being delivered.
High-income countries have bought up 49 per cent of the vaccines sold by sold by AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson. They represent only 16 per cent of world population.
All the while, a report recently released by Public Power has uncovered that Pfizer that was accused of “bullying” governments in COVID vaccine negotiations, pushing for higher profits.
Pharmaceutical companies are fighting hard to maintain their intellectual rights over the vaccines, making sure only they can continue to produce and sell them.
"Botswana actually is where the virus was first identified," Dr. Ayoade Alakija of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance told the BBC, "but do you know what was going on with Botswana a few months ago? The Government of Botswana ordered 500,000 Moderna vaccines at $29 per dose, much higher than the rest of the world paid."
"They did not get those vaccines because other people jumped ahead in the queue. Moderna supplied to other countries and did not supply to Botswana – so now we have a variant."
The COVID Dilemma
The last two years have been a herculean challenge for the international community. Countries have had to balance helping themselves while trying to help neighbours and poorer nations, while also trying to maintain the economy without endangering individuals at risk.
It has been a balancing game, and one which many have wade quite poorly at. Unfortunately, it seems that the way out the disease is through an even more demanding tight rope act. Countries can either cooperate to combat the pandemic, or they can act selfishly to ensure their country is best prepared against the diseases.
Unequivocally shutting down travel might help (temporarily) curb the spread of the new variant in your country, but it damages international trust and cooperation. Stockpiling vaccines might ensure that they are available when needed, but it allows for areas without them to develop new strains that might eventually render them useless.
International institutions like the WHO and the UN were put in place for exactly this type of eventuality, but after years of bashing from populist leaders like Donald Trump and also a fair few faux pas on their part (flip-flopping on mask wearing), they’re influence and standing is far from ideal.
The G-20 that took place in Rome this past October seemed like a step forwards, with leaders committing to support the WHO goal of a 40% global vaccination rate by the end of this year, with a further 70% by the end of 2022.
But promises (all of which are not legally binding, I might add - same with climate pledges) have been made and broken before, and with the rise of the new variant we saw just how quickly the same isolationist urges reappeared.
More than 5,000,000 people have died of COVID-19, and while vaccines have helped curb the spread and new medication may help alleviate hospitalisations and deaths, the epidemic is far from over.
There will be other variants and there will be more deaths. But isolating from the rest of the world is not a solution.
Donating vaccines isn't charity. It's an act of simple self interest.