South Africa is paying price for excellence in detecting omicron with discrimination

New COVID-19 variant is a time for science, not demagogues. Let’s leave the real decisions to them, not populists panicking and pandering to their prejudices.


South Africa found itself on the receiving end of its own excellence last week. It wasn’t a new experience, just the rotten fruits of centuries of exploitation, overlaid with more recent Afro-pessimism.

Our scientists, our virologists in particular, have been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, sequencing genomes and helping to develop and now manufacture vaccines to combat it.

Last week, scientists alerted the rest of the world to a new variant, one that could be more virulent (and potentially more vaccine resistant) than the others we have seen.

The reaction of the world – and Britain in particular – was instant.

All flights to and from South Africa were summarily suspended in Britain to the absolute consternation of our southern African diaspora – many of whom live in the United Kingdom – and the absolute despair of South Africa’s tourism industry, for which the overseas end-of-year tourism market is the structural spine.

South Africa is paying price for excellence in detecting omicron with discrimination

International sporting fixtures were thrown into disarray. British rugby teams that were actually in South Africa summarily cancelled matches and headed for the airport. As I write this, three days after the games were postponed, they are still waiting forlornly to catch a flight.

In Europe, the blind panic, fed by nothing more than arrant prejudice, was exerting its grip. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flights from South Africa were held on the tarmac in Amsterdam for hours until everyone was tested.

All the while, the news from the north was ominous with one country after another following Britain’s lead and banning southern African countries.

The anger here in the southern tip of the continent, where I am from, was palpable. How do you argue against prejudice and blind fear? South Africans have 350 years’ experience in just that, but the truth is that it doesn’t make it any easier.

South Africa didn’t hesitate to implement one of the harshest lockdowns in the world in March 2020, after the extent of the pandemic became known. COVID-19 had the potential to collapse our public health system and bring unimaginable carnage.

South Africa’s president worked tirelessly to secure vaccines for the rest of Africa. It’s also a country where masks in public have been mandatory, social distancing is enforced and hand washing evangelized.

Outdoor mass gatherings are heavily regulated, open-air sport stadiums built for tens of thousands of spectators can only now, after months of the lowest infection rates since the pandemic began, take a maximum of 2,000 people. It’s a far cry from 10 Downing Street, where the British prime minister is perennially pictured in public without a mask anywhere close to his mouth. It’s also a far cry from Twickenham Stadium recently, where 80,000 fans flocked to a rugby game, creating a potential superspreader event.

By Monday morning, the omicron variant (in some cases suspected omicron variant) had been detected in Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland and Britain. The United States, as just one example, had banned travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

If this was precautionary, why was the United States still allowing travelers from Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel and the United Kingdom? You don’t really need someone to spell it out, do you?

When someone as polarizing as British talk show host Piers Morgan becomes the voice of reason in all of this – and to be seen as such by South Africans who frequently detest anything he would say, just on principle – it shows just how out of control this entire scenario has become.

What makes it even more galling is that we don’t know how dangerous the omicron variant actually is. We don’t know whether it is any more fatal than the previous mutations. The mass hysteria in the corridors of power would suggest that this was the chimera virus, featured in Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible II,” ready to destroy the world.

The sad part is that this kind of response to African nations isn’t new.

The British government had already clamped down on travel by red listing South Africa earlier this year. The decision was illogical and scientifically unsound, and the prejudice was identical. Countries with higher infection rates were unaffected. At that stage, South Africa had passed our third wave, and on some days we were tracking fewer than 4,000 new cases a day. Turkey on the other hand had 23,000 cases per day, while the United Kingdom had even more.

What this latest panic does do, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out in his latest address to the nation on Sunday evening, is seriously undermine any hope of the global solidarity we need to properly combat the pandemic. It incentivizes unethical and opaque practices at the expense of the transparency, honesty and the highest ethics that are so vital right now.

Who will sound the alarm for the next variant? Would you, knowing the possible consequences for your reputation or your country, given the proven nature of viruses to mutate and keep on mutating until they finally burn out?

This is a time for science, not demagogues. Let’s leave the real decisions to the people who know what they’re doing, not populists panicking and pandering to their prejudices.

What we should be doing is bringing about an end to the unequal distribution of vaccines, encouraging mandatory vaccinations internationally and working together globally to create a safer community for all – because that’s the real lesson of the pandemic. When one of us is at risk, we are all in danger.

But that doesn’t suit other nations’ perennial Afro-pessimism narrative, does it?

Ivor Ichikowitz is a South African-born industrialist and philanthropist.

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