Just as the holiday season starts, a new COVID-19 virus variant, namely omicron, is spreading worldwide and impacting economies struggling to recover from the pandemic that began nearly two years ago.
Reportedly, the first incidents of the omicron variant were cited in South Africa. As a result, President Joe Biden expeditiously halted all air travel from eight southern African countries into the U.S., except for U.S. citizens. “As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” Biden announced Monday. These new restrictions went into effect on November 29 and include Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Had the U.S. taken such immediate action when COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, over a year ago, some suggest the global spread of the deadly virus would have been minimized. But that didn’t immediately happen and African political and health leaders indicate that politics drove these decisions.
Dr. Ayoade Olatunbusun-Alakija, co-chair, Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said in a BBC interview, “Had the first COVID-19 virus, the one first identified in China last year, originated in Africa, it is clear the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key.”
Dr. Alakija went on to say that no one should be surprised that a variant occurred in Southern Africa. “What is going on right now is inevitable,” she said. “It is a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner. It is the result of hoarding [of vaccines] by high-income countries in the world. And, quite frankly, it is unacceptable. These travel bans are based on politics and not on science, and it is wrong.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed her concerns and said his country is being punished for detecting and informing global health authorities about the omicron variant.
Dr. Anthony Fauci reported Tuesday that 226 cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant had been found in 20 countries, including Canada. A Dutch health agency also reported that the omicron variant was in the Netherlands a week before it was reported in South Africa.
We recognize the double standard applied to Africa, related to a travel ban and the higher cost of vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and structural barriers preventing African countries from reaching their goal of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations by the end of this year. And we agree with Dr. Alakija that “until everyone is vaccinated, no one is safe.”
It is wrong to single out Africa when a global response is required.