Global cooperation, not Covid colonialism, is the o …
When the word Omicron entered our lexicon at the end of November, a strange but familiar feeling came over me. I knew this would mark another turning point in the pandemic and in all likelihood South Africa would be put to the test again. After frantic headlines unfolded following the reporting of the new viral strain to the World Health Organization (WHO), Omicron quickly became the South African variant.
An instinctive travel ban by the UK was followed by similar imposition by more than 50 governments, which imposed restrictions on visitors from South Africa and seven other African countries.
This vilification of entire nations is all too familiar. There is no point in denigrating those who report pandemic cases except to discourage openness, which is damaging to society. The last two years of the pandemic have indeed demonstrated the danger of such an approach. Called the “Chinese virus” in March 2020 by then-US President Donald Trump, it has become evident that the ethnicization and racialization of the pandemic is a threat in itself.
Last year, in the week following Trump’s “Chinese virus” tweet, the number of coronavirus-related tweets with anti-Asian hashtags increased dramatically. Trump’s tweet read, “The United States will be powerful, supporting industries, like airlines and others, which are particularly affected by the Chinese virus. We will be stronger than ever!
According to a study from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), following Trump’s initial tweet, about 20% of the nearly 500,000 hashtags with # covid19 showed anti-Asian sentiment, while a bias anti-asian was observed in half of the more than 775,000 hashtags with #chinesevirus.
As the attacks on Asians unfolded, it became evident how loaded the term was and how much the phenomenon of attributing the pandemic to a single nation and, by proxy, to an entire ethnic group. could be dangerous.
Commenting on the UCSF study, Yulin Hswen, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, warned that “the use of racial terms associated with disease may result in the perpetuation of further stigma against groups. racial… Chinese virus, Chinese virus, Wuhan virus, or anything derived from those terms is not something we should be using. We should not associate location or ethnicity with illnesses. “
We see once again how devastating this phenomenon can be. In recent weeks, South Africa and neighboring countries have been hit with premature travel bans in what can be called colonial attitudes.
We are not the only country or continent with this iteration of the virus. It turned out that the variant was circulating in the Netherlands before being identified in South Africa. The continent’s experience with epidemics such as HIV and Ebola has positioned us well to be at the forefront of scientific research. This strain of Covid-19 has been mistakenly called the South African variant, not because it emerged here, but because our scientists have identified a different genomic profile.
As Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, co-chair of the African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance, astutely put it in an article for The Guardian, “It doesn’t have to be like that. African countries, which have decades of experience in successfully combating Ebola, HIV / AIDS and polio, are using their technology and expertise to monitor the virus. But instead of being called upon to help monitor its spread, our continent has been rewarded with exclusion and the red list – an insult that adds to our injury. “
Once again labeled as outcasts, the impact of travel bans is a blow to an already struggling continent. It is reminiscent of labels such as “the desperate continent” and “the dark continent” and the parallels to our dark colonial history are hard to ignore.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out in a recent press briefing: “What is unacceptable is that one part of the world – one of the most vulnerable parts of the world world economy – be condemned to a lockout when it was they who revealed the existence of a new variant which, moreover, already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe, like us know it.
This, of course, is not an isolated example of Covid-19 colonialism, as some have called it. This was also manifested in the distribution of vaccines. Although Africa is at the forefront of research and clinical trials, by the first week of December, only 6% of the 1.2 billion Africans had received two doses of the vaccine. In October, the WHO said less than 10% of Africa’s 54 countries were on track to meet the goal of immunizing 40% of their population by the end of 2021.
While the emergence of new strains of Covid-19 has been attributed to vaccine reluctance, we cannot ignore the grim reality of vaccine apartheid. The United States, for example, which is considered one of the most vaccine hesitant countries in the world, has complete immunization coverage of just under 60%.
According to a report drawn up by Unicef in October, G20 countries received 15 times more doses of Covid-19 vaccine per capita than countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The data is certainly overwhelming. For example, the doses delivered per capita in the UK are 12 times higher than the doses delivered per capita in Kenya. In comparison, the doses administered per capita in Canada are 34 times higher than the doses administered per capita in Sudan. Added to this challenge are the exorbitant costs facing Africa. Botswana, for example, paid almost $ 29 per dose (much more than many high-income countries) for Moderna’s vaccine in July, but by October, none of the 500,000 doses had been delivered.
Solutions coming from within the continent have also been largely ignored. For example, vaccine manufacturers have resisted calls to open up vaccine manufacturing to increase immunization rates. Last year, at the World Trade Organization (WTO), India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. A waiver would require the agreement of the 164 members of the WTO, yet the European Union has fiercely opposed it.
The reluctance of the Global North to relinquish intellectual property rights is quite revealing of the attitude towards the Global South. There is no rush to review patents despite the potential to increase vaccine availability for developing countries.
The numbers are alarming, but this discrimination continues unabated. Without vaccine equity, we will continue to see new variants emerge and the end of the pandemic will continue to elude us. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk. “
A first step is to view this pandemic for what it is: a global threat. We cannot work in silos that create divisions if we are to one day emerge from this haze of Covid-19. The fight against racialized rhetoric, the attachment of places and ethnic groups to the virus and instinctive responses to countries of the South are only a step in the right direction. The fight that awaits us, however, is still long and exhausting. We must end this pandemic, which will not be possible without the cooperation of all nations. DM