Vaccine Hoarding Created Omicron, Not South Africa

A male flight attendant with a face mask collects trash on a partially empty plane.
Image Source: Lukas Souza on Unsplash

Upon discovery of the Omicron variant, eight southern African countries faced travel bans from the U.S., U.K., European Union, and Canada. Though the new variant was in 57 countries by December 8, only travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi remain barred from entry to the U.S. (CNN, WHO). A “discriminatory” and “ineffective” travel ban on countries currently dealing with vaccine inequity won’t stop the spread of COVID-19 or prevent the emergence of new variants. It’s another manifestation of global “vaccine apartheid” created by wealthy nations (Reuters). 

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available to them, nor should they be collectively punished for identifying and sharing crucial science with the world,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “When we have the virus everywhere, what is unacceptable is to have one part of the world that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy condemned to a lockout. We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid” (Al Jazeera). 

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Consider: what communities, nations, or regions do you think of as being especially healthy or unsanitary? Are these associations grounded in fact? How is the lack of healthcare in some communities related to the quality of healthcare in others?

Consider: do you think of the COVID pandemic as a local, national, or global problem?

Support organizations like the People’s Vaccine, Global Nurses United, and Progressive International, which are working to end global vaccine discrimination.

The Omicron variant was first detected in November in Botswana and South Africa (Huffington Post), but the source of the new variant remains unknown. It’s known that Omicron had been circulating in both the Netherlands and Scotland at least a week earlier (RIVM, CNBC). But only southern African countries have been hit with travel bans.

According to Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, this is because “we are weak, we are weaker, we are poor, we are poorer, and we are unable to respond in equal measures.” He also pointed out that amongst the first cases of the variant in the country were diplomats from Europe.  

“Even if they didn’t originate in Europe, I make no sense of these travel bans. If I were to be more candid, [they] are nothing more than neo-imperialistic thinking,” said Masisi. “[They] are very partializing and very divisive, and they undermine our belief systems in multilateralism” (CNN).

The questionable association between Omicron and southern Africa opened the door to anti-Black sentiments just as xenophobic violence against Asian Americans accompanied the emergence of the coronavirus. A German newspaper declared that “the Virus from Africa is with us,” and a Spanish newspaper published a cartoon depicting a caricature of virus-shaped Black South Africans heading to Europe on a boat labeled “Omicron” (Twitter/Hopewell Chin’ono). 

Thinking of Omicron as a uniquely southern African problem, just like thinking of COVID as a “Chinese virus,” facilitates racist beliefs and inappropriate public health responses (NPR). Also, until the global vaccine inequity is addressed, travel bans against non-white countries won’t stop new variants from emerging.

“The world is in vaccine apartheid,” Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said about global vaccine disparities. “Even now, some high-income countries are moving to vaccinate children and adolescents, while health workers, older people, and other at-risk groups around the world remain unvaccinated. The consequences are clear to see. Cases and deaths of COVID-19 globally remain at or near highs, and new variants threaten to unravel the gains we have made” (Reuters).

Vaccination slows new variants from developing (CDC), but international vaccine discrimination means only 6% of the African population was fully vaccinated in October (WHO Africa). The U.S. has more than 60% of the population fully vaccinated (MayoClinic)

This vaccine inequity is due to pharmaceutical companies enforcing patents on COVID vaccines (Al Jazeera). Rich nations like the U.S. preordered enough doses back in 2020 to immunize their populations “multiple times over” (FiveThirtyEight, New York Times). The Biden administration has been accused of using vaccine access as a bargaining chip in international relations (Politico), while domestically, the U.S. threw out at least 15 million vaccine doses between March and September (NBC News). That’s enough doses to partially vaccine each Zimbabwean or fully vaccinate every person in Botswana, Eswatini, and Namibia — with a million left over at the end.

Global justice and global health require rejecting travel apartheid and fighting for vaccine equity.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Travel bans against southern African countries are ineffective travel apartheid.

Global inequities created by vaccine hoarding are facilitating new COVID variants.

Every resident of Botswana, Eswatini, and Namibia could have been fully vaccinated with the doses discarded in the United States between March and September.

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