More leaders must stand up against Omicron bans

The widespread travel ban against southern African countries  in the wake of the discovery of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant should not only be condemned but more leaders must stand up and voice the concern over this ‘Afrophobic’ reality.

If anything, the transparency and advanced scientific knowledge and proactive approach that was exhibited by our neighbours, South Africa should be lauded and instead of discrimination, there should be active cooperation between countries to stem the tide and ensure that new discoveries are reported in a fair and balanced manner.

It is encouraging to note that President Hage Geingob is among the few presidents in the region that have found their voice in this time while at the same time, it is discouraging that some presidents have moved to impose bans on travellers.

“I urge the developed world to consciously meditate on the wisdom of unilateral decisions that result in targeted, ambiguous regional travel bans, which are not based on scientific rigor and evidence. These bans have many undesired impacts, including stalling much needed economic recovery in the Global South, stoking tensions and sowing seeds of division between countries and citizens,” Geingob said this week.

While this message is key at this stage, we must remain cognisant that the bans may deter countries, especially those in lower-resource parts of the world, from reporting new strains of the coronavirus in the future.

Bans can prompt a “fear of discrimination, stigma and the fear that the economies would be hugely impacted” by things like travel bans. We say this well aware of the fact that Africa has faced “severe” economic consequences as a result of restrictions on mobility and travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the World Bank. Incomes plummeted and jobs dried up in response to economic instability that experts say could last for years.

Studies have also shown that restricting travel alone may do little to prevent the spread of a new Covid-19 strain without other public health measures, such as early detection and isolating patients.

We already know that this variant is far more dangerous that the previous ones and therefore a collective approach and not one that segregates a few southern African countries is of essence.

Omicron like no other is reported to have unprecedented set of genetic mutations. Its 50 mutations include more than 30 on the spike protein, the exposed part of the virus that binds with human cells. These could make it more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and more likely to evade the immune protection conferred by Covid-19 vaccines or previous infection.

That said, there is no denying that this variant has highlighted the fact that vaccination remains a major hurdle to containing the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa.

African countries have far lower vaccination rates than the rest of the world, in part because they cannot get enough doses. Rich countries have stockpiled many more vaccine doses than developing nations. And unless vaccines are distributed more equitably across the world, public health experts say the virus will continue to mutate and create new variants.

Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing countries — economies, that is — to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.