South Africa found itself at the mercy of its own excellence last week. It was not a new experience, just the rotten fruits of centuries of exploitation, superimposed on a 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.
Scientists last week alerted the rest of the world to a new variant, which may be more virulent (and potentially more resistant to vaccines) than the others we’ve seen.
The reaction of the world – and Britain in particular – was instantaneous.
All flights to and from South Africa have been summarily suspended in Britain to the absolute dismay of our Southern African diaspora – many of whom live in the UK – and to the utter desperation of the industry South African tourism, for which the end of the year overseas tourism market is the structural backbone.
International sporting events have been turned upside down. British rugby teams that were in fact in South Africa summarily canceled the matches and headed for the airport. As of this writing, three days after the games were postponed, they are still desperately waiting to catch a flight.
In Europe, blind panic, fueled by nothing more than blatant prejudice, was gripping it. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flights from South Africa were held up on the Amsterdam tarmac for hours until everyone was tested.
All the while, the news from the north was ominous, with country after country following Britain’s lead and banning countries in southern Africa.
The anger here at the southern tip of the continent, where I come from, was palpable. How do you argue against prejudice and blind fear? South Africans have 350 years of experience in this field, but the truth is, it doesn’t help matters.
South Africa did not hesitate to put in place one of the toughest 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 cause unimaginable carnage.
The South African president has worked tirelessly to obtain vaccines for the rest of Africa. It is also a country where masks in public are mandatory, social distancing is enforced and handwashing evangelized.
Outdoor mass gatherings are heavily regulated, outdoor sports stadiums built for tens of thousands of spectators can only now, after months of the lowest infection rates since the start of the pandemic, host a maximum of 2,000 people. We are far from 10 Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister is still represented in public without a mask near his mouth. It’s also a far cry from Twickenham Stadium recently, where 80,000 fans flocked for a rugby match, creating a potential super-broadcast event.
As of Monday morning, the omicron variant (in some cases the suspected omicron variant) had been detected in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Israel, Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa , Switzerland and Brittany. The United States, for example, had banned travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
If it was as a precaution, why did the United States still allow 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 a British talk show host Piers Morgan becomes the voice of reason in it all – and to be seen as such by South Africans who frequently hate anything he says, just on principle – it shows how this whole scenario has gotten out of hand.
What makes it even more irritating is that we don’t know how dangerous the omicron variant actually is. We don’t know if it’s more deadly than previous mutations. Mass hysteria in the halls of power would suggest it was the chimera virus, featured in Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible II”, poised to destroy the world.
The sad part is that this kind of response to African nations is not new.
The British government had already cracked down on travel by putting South Africa on the red list earlier this year. The decision was illogical and scientifically unfounded, and the prejudice was the same. Countries with higher infection rates have not been affected. By this point South Africa had passed our third wave and on some days we were tracking less than 4,000 new cases per day. Turkey, on the other hand, had 23,000 cases per day, while the UK had even more.
What this latest panic does, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out in his last address to the nation on Sunday evening, seriously undermines any hope for global solidarity that we need to properly tackle the pandemic. It incites 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, mutate and continue to mutate until they eventually die out?
It’s time for science, not demagogues. Let us leave the real decisions to the people who know what they are doing, not to the populists who panic and bow to their prejudices.
What we should do is end the uneven distribution of vaccines, encourage mandatory vaccinations internationally, and work together globally to create a safer community for all, because this is the real thing. lesson from the pandemic. When one of us is in danger, we are all in danger.
But that doesn’t fit the perennial narrative of other nations’ Afro-pessimism, does it?
Ivor Ichikowitz is an industrialist and philanthropist of South African origin. Follow him on Twitter: @ivorichikowitz