Hours after scientists in South Africa sounded an alarm over a new and transmissible variant of the SARS-COV-2 – now known as Omicron, a WHO-labelled variant of concern – several countries across the globe including the UK, EU, US and Australia quickly effected travel bans on South African nations. Even though initial cases were also reported in Hong Kong and Israel, the variant was conveniently named the ‘South African variant’ in the media.
The response of the global community towards South Africa and its neighbours nations has left African leaders miffed with many calling it a form of ‘travel apartheid’ and ‘afrophobia’ and criticizing European and American nations of imposing unilateral bans. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently called the ban “unjustified” and urged for their lifting.
“…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,” Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said in Facebook post.
United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres called any kind of “travel apartheid” “deeply unfair”, “ineffective” and “unacceptable”.
“With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective,” he said adding that travel bans are not required when “we have all the instruments to have safe travel”.
Also highly critical of the travel restrictions, Dr Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Europe has said that such interventions are not sustainable too.
‘Selective outrage, rules’
What has hit South Africa and its neighbouring nations most is the fact that the virus was present in Europe, the US and the rest of the world all along at the time countries were calling Africa a hotspot and imposing bans. So far, Omicron has been reported in 38 countries including Britain, the US, Germany, Australia, Israel, India, Canada, Hong Kong, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain besides African nations like South Africa, Botswana and Nigeria.
A different set of rules for African nations by European countries has also been major bone of contention. For instance, while Omicron has been detected in 38 countries encompassing Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the United Kingdom has added only 11 countries to its red list, most of them African nations.
Travel, tourism hit roadblock
It was only in October that the UK removed South African nations from its travel red list after a long ban, triggering a surge in booking of tickets for travel between the two countries. Britain’s earlier decision to have put South Africa on the red list was criticised by the government, scientists and tourism industry as the country draws its biggest tourist footfalls – 4 lakh – every year from Britain alone.
The re-imposition of travel ban on South Africa and its neighbouring nations has now thrown the tourism and hospitality industry out of gear.
Industry sources say with the country depending on tourism for jobs and livelihoods, a fresh ban would render a heavy blow not only to restaurants and hospitality businesses, like it happened in 2020, but also cripple the airline industry which was beginning to recover from the losses caused by the previous travel restrictions.
“The United Kingdom is our key source market, and the announcement is devastating for the tourism industry, not only because of the impact to British travellers headed to South Africa during our peak season as their travel plans are summarily disrupted, but also because of the message it sends to the rest of the world,” South African Tourism Services Association’s CEO David Frost told the Daily Maverick.
“In southern Africa, monies from tourism were slowly starting replenish depleted conservation and community coffers. This COVID bolt from the blue will break hearts and bank balances alike,” Jarrod Kyte, of Steppes Travel, a British company offering vacations to red-listed countries told The Times.
Currently, the United Kingdom has banned travel to and from Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The UK had already red-listed South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Lesotho before the variant was given a name.
The US, on the other hand, has imposed travel bans on South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended his government’s ban by stating that it was just a measure to “buy the scientists time”, experts say given the country’s past gestures, it may take a while for it to remove the ban from African countries.
To alert or not to alert
The ‘discriminatory’ nature of the ban has also raised questions on the disincentivising treatment that awaits a country which develops its genome sequencing capabilities and uses it for the benefit of the world. Ever since the announcement of the variant, it has been highly debated whether South Africa did the right thing by warning the world about the new variant.
“Countries have a commitment to global health to go public, but there is no system in place to compel any one country to disclose what mutations they find. Any time you uncover something like this you are weighing a whole bunch of risk versus gain,” Canada-based geneticist Fatima Tokhmafsham told The Times.
Stating that even though scientists, when they caution the world about a variant, do not know if it is a benign or serious mutation, it is imperative to sound an alert despite the outcomes.
“Researchers in South Africa and Botswana made the right call for the good of global health – but now the world is leaving them behind,” she said, adding that “travel bans” are not the solution, not to mention that their very punitive nature is a “disservice to science”.
‘White man’s fear for dark continent’
Analysts say the 19th century ‘mythologization’ of Africa in films and news and image of Africa as a “land of Ebola-like catastrophes”, has triggered a scare for the continent, mostly among European and American nations among others.
“When fear, the ‘motivational state,’ transforms into actions, individual fear behaviours 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 behaviours of each other,” Remi Adekoya, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of York told CNN.
“‘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, adding, “If the variant was discovered somewhere else, then the reaction would have been much different.”