Africa Fumes at Omicron Travel Bans: ‘Racism Is a Very Blunt Tool’

Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera presents his national statement as part of the World Leaders' Summit of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland on November 1, 2021. - COP26, running from October 31 to November 12 in Glasgow will be the biggest climate conference since the 2015 Paris …
YVES HERMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

More African leaders on Monday joined South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera in condemning travel bans against their nations – imposed hurriedly by U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western and Asian governments after the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant – as unreasonable actions driven by virus panic and racist animosity towards Africans.

Malawi’s Chakwera on Sunday accused the Biden administration, and others who imposed travel bans, of “Afrophobia.”

Ramaphosa said the travel restrictions are “completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country.”

Botswana’s Minister of Health and Wellness, Edwin Dikoloti, worried the travel bans could interfere with the delivery of much-needed vaccines.

“We were expecting one million doses before the end of the year and now we are just confused as we are not sure if those vaccines will come because we have been red-listed by the manufacturing countries,” he said.

Dikoloti said only 19 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in Botswana, and the first four patients were fully-vaccinated foreign nationals.

“Most of these cases, contacts have been traced, tested and quarantined while the four foreign nationals have returned as they have finished their mandatory quarantine,” he said.

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism on Monday said the travel bans “lack scientific basis and are unacceptable, discriminatory and in contradiction of guidance from the World Health Organization.”

“As we enter the festive season, this is a particularly crushing blow to our tourism industry and for the many lives and livelihoods that depend on it,” the ministry added.

The African Union denounced the restrictions, asserting that “imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was “deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries due to new Covid-19 travel restrictions.”

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available and should not be penalized for sharing health information with the world,” Guterres argued.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” Matshidiso Moeti, African regional director for the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), said on Sunday.

“[Chinese coronavirus] constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” Moeti said.

Mia Malan of South Africa’s Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism also charged Western governments with scapegoating Africans for an outbreak they caused by “hoarding” vaccines.

“Africa doesn’t have enough vaccines because Western countries bought it all up and even hoarded those vaccines. So they are part of the reason why this new variant emerged, because there’s a continent that didn’t have enough access to vaccines. Now they want to punish the very people who are the victims of their actions. That’s simply not the right thing to do,” she said.

An especially furious denunciation of the travel restrictions came from Jess Auerbach, a professor at South Africa’s North-West University, on Monday. Auerbach said the travel bans were an expression of “global prejudice” and remarked, “Racism is a very blunt tool.”

Auerbach was particularly angry that South Africa is being insulted and penalized for discovering the Omicron strain, potentially setting a dangerous precedent for developing nations that keeping such discoveries to themselves is wiser than warning the world and risking ostracization.

“Wealthy countries ought to recognize and reward this excellent science and follow scientific principles themselves. Instead, they are punishing it, risking dangerous repercussions,” she wrote.

Auerbach suggested the U.S. and Europe are impugning and penalizing South Africa because they are self-conscious about failing to detect the Omicron strain themselves.

“That a developing country caught Omicron before the likes of the UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel, and Hong Kong, says everything about our commitment to humanity and our scientific prowess. That the world responded as it did, says everything about opportunistic racism,” she charged.

“In the UK, masks are now mandated again, but we all know Prime Minister Boris Johnson needed to make that decision weeks ago – he waited until it was possible to blame another country. After Thanksgiving in the U.S., there will be another spike – now it can be blamed on South Africa, not on a polarized politic where so many do not believe in science,” she added.

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