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    Omicron: yet another reason to ostracize Africa

    Although the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities appear comparatively low in Africa than in other regions of the world, the pandemic could have a disastrous impact on the continent’s already strained healthcare system and quickly turn the situation into a social and economic emergency. 

    While the continent struggles to cope with the pandemic, different factors are affecting its endeavor. One of the major challenges is lack of cooperation with rich countries in terms of provision of vaccine and other health related advances in technology.

    To this end, many experts across the globe warned that ‘if the wealthy nations focused only on tackling the challenge domestically and ignore the poorer nations, the pandemic will remain a threat to the global healthcare system.’ And with the spread of the new OMICRON variant, their predictions and warnings have become a reality.

    Once South Africa announced it had discovered this new variant, many countries once again rushed to close their borders and order cancelation of flights from Southern African countries. A number of countries across the globe also moved to ban travel from many countries in the aftermath of the emergence of the new variant.

    The new variant, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases this week, plunging countries into the most uncertain of moments since the highly contagious Delta variant took hold this spring.

    The introduction of this variant also brings back the issue of equitable distribution of vaccines with southern African officials noting the West’s hoarding of vaccines helped create their struggle in the first place.

    The decision to close borders triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believe the continent is yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries.  

    Richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalizing parts of the world they had starved of shots in the first place, scientists said, referring to warnings from researchers that delaying vaccinations risked the emergence of new variants. And it feels like richer countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support.

    Just over 10 percent of people in Africa have received one dose of the vaccine, compared to 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe.

    Bearing a worrying number of spikes, researchers fear it could make the virus spread easily and quickly. Omicron was traced in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy, leaving in its wake what scientists estimate to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and many more globally. One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa continuing to rebuff public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on the new variant.

    The EU, UK, the US and others quickly imposed restrictions on travel from southern African countries, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, nations in Southern Africa protested bitterly on the move to ban travel.

    As in the early days of the Delta variant, political alarm spread quickly across the world with officials trading blame over how the global vaccination efforts failed and allowed the virus to mutate.

    South African leaders and officials from the continental block, AU, decried the ban as unnecessary and as a punishment for the vigilance of their scientists and the transparency of their public health officials. South Africa complained it is being punished, instead of being applauded, for discovering the Omicron variant in the first place.

    Several scientists said that they suspected the variant had been spreading undetected in countries with lackluster sequencing efforts before it surfaced in Botswana and South Africa, giving it more time to spread globally. Nevertheless, European nations did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating the gap in their own surveillance efforts.

    A statement by the South African Foreign Ministry strongly criticized the travel ban and said “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.” It went on to state that the ban was “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

    The statement added that the reaction had been completely different when new variants were discovered elsewhere in the world. “These travel bans are based on politics, and not in science. It is wrong… Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents?”

    To substantiate such arguments, scientists compared the daily rate of infections in South Africa and Europe and indicated that South Africa’s number of daily infections stood at 2,828 on November 26, 2021, which was a small fraction of case counts in countries with similarly sized populations such as Germany and Britain, not to mention the US. Hence, such move to restrict travel is described by many as a mark of double standards.

    Furthermore, apart from such sentiments and marginalization, scientists are also worried that the restrictions would discourage other nations from reporting other variants or cases, out of fear of being slapped with a travel ban.

    It is clear that in order to prevent, detect, and respond to the threat of emerging and epidemic-prone diseases, multi-sector engagement and collaboration among neighboring countries is desperately needed. The COVID-19 crisis is far from over. Attention still needs to be given to several key areas including prevention and protection, treatment and relief, an inclusive vaccine access and securing livelihoods. And as many argue, if the world wants to tackle the pandemic, Africa’s 1.2 billion people cannot be left behind in the efforts to end the pandemic.

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