Thank you, South Africa

We should be grateful to South African scientists, doctors who were able to quickly identify the new strain

Muhammad Hamid Zaman November 30, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

There is justifiable anxiety about the new Covid-19 variant — (B.1.1.529) or Omicron, as it has been named by the WHO following the practice of identifying successive variants by Greek alphabets. Markets are anxious, cities are on alert, and flights from nearly all southern African countries are cancelled by several countries across the world. Of course, as often happens when new pathogens emerge in Africa, there is a rise in racist language coming from far-right corners of politics. Several op-ed pieces and news stories from around the world have also amplified these vile voices. South Africa is being blamed for disrupting Christmas celebrations for families (never mind the lives lost around the world), and African Covid patients are being held responsible for the continued anxiety of the rich in the penthouses.

First — this racist language and approach — is not new. It is toxic, vulgar and abhorrent, but not new. We have seen, time and again, how Africa is equated as a land of disease and poverty. Few bother to connect racism and colonialism with the poverty and lack of robust health services that continue to destroy families, institutions, cultures and societies across Africa.

In the current context, we should be grateful to South African scientists, doctors, clinicians and frontline workers who were able to quickly identify the new strain, map the mutations, and share with the world. This happened both with incredible speed and with immense clarity. If other countries that saw the infection early had operated with the same transparency, we all would be in a very different place. Through their actions and commitment to global public health, South African researchers have saved countless lives.

South African colleagues have also shown — despite limited resources and many challenges — that their system of surveillance works better than many other countries, including those that are richer and supposedly more powerful. There have been other strains in several countries — and there may be others in the future — but either the data is kept confidential or the system lacks the ability to act fast. South African public health system has delivered on both.

While the South African approach is worthy of praise, the opposite should be said about the approach taken by wealthy nations. Limited vaccine availability contributes directly to the mutations in the virus, and when it comes to making vaccine equity a priority, richer nations and their institutions have failed miserably. The vaccine apartheid is real and does not seem to be ending anytime soon. The share of total eligible population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in Africa is less than 10%. In some countries, like South Sudan, it’s a mere 1.6%, in Niger it is 1.8% and in Uganda it is 1.9%. Close to South Africa, in Zambia only 3.3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This cannot simply be blamed on vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaxx movements. These unacceptable rates of vaccination are primarily driven by the supply side of the equation. The vaccine inequity is not simply a moral failure, it is also a global public health failure as well.

South African diplomats and government are justifiably angry at the global response. The government feels they are penalised for being honest, transparent and efficient. The travel bans are going to hurt the already struggling South African economy, and while an evidence based approach for travel is needed by all countries, the travel ban will likely create disincentives for other nations to share data. Other governments, in an effort to protect their economy, may choose to keep quiet, or dismiss the data and reports. At this time, richer countries whose actions are impacting southern African economies ought to act to support these countries and help with actual material support. There should not be any disincentives for honesty, or saving lives.

We are at a fork in the road. We can either act with empathy and make equity a priority for global (including our own) good, or we can choose nativism and elitism that will continue to make us sicker, in more ways than one.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2021.

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