The narrative of Omicron being a ‘South African variant’ has already made its way into the media, our dinner tables and our travel restrictions. It didn’t take Australia very long to ban flights from south African countries, including Botswana — whose president just revealed their first Omicron cases were actually European visitors. The falsehoods around Omicron and the way we’ve quickly reacted to it comes strictly from a place of xenophobia and racism, so let’s talk about it.
First of all, some facts. There’s still a lot to learn about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, but what we do know is that it was first isolated and discovered by scientists in South Africa. Thanks to their advanced research, the Omicron variant was then successfully detected across the world, including in countries such as Belgium, Italy, Hong Kong, Israel and the UK.
If you're seeing that Omicron is from South Africa, this might help. pic.twitter.com/Tl8NIoAY6J
— Read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (@JoshuaPotash) November 26, 2021
Needs to be said: banning travel from African countries but not from other nations with confirmed cases of Omicron variant is racist
— Jorge A. Caballero, MD (@DataDrivenMD) November 27, 2021
There is currently no way of telling where this variant started, but it doesn’t matter. Diseases mutate all the time, and the media has already found their scapegoat. Privileged and predominantly white countries such as the US, Australia and the UK have already established blanket border bans for anyone travelling from South Africa and surrounding African countries Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Eswatini.
Which is frustrating for many reasons, but it gets worse when you realise the Netherlands actually had cases of Omicron before South Africa detected any. Is there going to be a ban for this country? No, of course not.
Botswana’s president Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi put it best when he revealed that the first four cases of Omicron in his country were actually… European visitors. Trust the western world to spread disease and then point fingers at Black and brown people.
Botswana's President Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi revealed that the first four cases of Omicron variant in Botswana were from four Visiting European Diplomats.
He stated that Western countries banning flights over this was an act of neo-imperialistic thinking. pic.twitter.com/yypCyeJsU7
— Africa Facts Zone (@AfricaFactsZone) December 8, 2021
“These travel bans, if I were to be more candid, are nothing but a manifestation of neo-imperalistic thinking,” President Masisi said, condemning the bans as “paternalistic” and “divisive”.
“It’s inhumane, it’s demeaning [and] it’s degrading.”
African travel bans are based purely on politics and not science, or else we’d be seeing many more European countries on that list.
Except we don’t. And that’s because of racist, colonial ideas around disease and developing countries.
An international relationship affected by systemic racism doesn’t exist between, say, Australia and the Netherlands. But a racist relationship between paternalistic high-income countries and South Africa does. A structure built entirely out of bigotry and othering, that has been going on for decades.
Our media has already demonised South Africa by associating the country with the spread of Omicron, but our politicians and border rules are simply cementing our long-standing racism into law. Which isn’t a new practice — COVID is just bringing it to the forefront of our discourse.
Shit’s starting to get real obvious, fellas.
The unabashed racism of only banning African countries due to omicron is wild. Like, they’re not even trying to pretend to not be racist
— Elsbeth Tashioni (@THISisLULE) November 28, 2021
Watching pop media and racists jump on the Omicron variant by calling it the "South African variant" is as disappointing as it is predictable.
— Christopher Lockett (@HeyLockett) November 27, 2021
— Ivan (@ThisisIvan__) November 28, 2021
Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija of the Africa Union’s African Vaccine Delivery Alliance hopped on the BBC to slam the world’s reaction to the Omicron virus as “discriminatory” and “wrong”, and also critique the vaccine inequity created by countries hoarding jabs.
“Moderna supplied to other countries and did not supply to Botswana, so now we have a variant,” she said.
“Do we know where this variant originated? No, we don’t even know that yet… the excellent science in South Africa has shown it up, but it very well could have come from anywhere else.”
“This is discriminatory, it is xenophobia, and it is wrong. Let us follow the science, let us not follow politics.
“Let us share the know-how. Let us allow African countries and others to produce their own vaccines so that we do not get to an Omega variant which we cannot control.”
Spoke to @BBCWorld earlier today about #VirusVariantsVaccine #VaccineApartheid Inequity & Injustice. Thanks to Philippa Thomas for inviting me on. This is NOT the answer, we need Global Solidarity and we need it NOW! pic.twitter.com/aI9DhnDF6n
— Dr. Ayoade Alakija (@yodifiji) November 27, 2021
Dr Alakija’s points about vaccine equity are also something we all should be focusing on as Omicron becomes more talked about in the media.
High-efficacy vaccine hoarding has become a massive problem in high-income countries, where third booster shots are currently being handed out. If we do not put our bigotry and superiority complexes aside and focus on a global vaccine-sharing effort, then COVID-19 will simply continue to evolve and grow in countries that have been left to essentially fend for themselves with few resources.
This is a function of colonialism that has affected many nations in the fight against COVID-19, and will continue to as more variants are discovered.
Isolating and banning South Africa will only hurt South Africans, and do very little to help us. It’s greed at work, and it’s a violently brazen display of the racism that has already existed for a long time now.
Make no mistake, Omicron was born out of racist policies & choices which continue to perpetuate vaccine inequity.
Omicron is a variant from colonialism.
— Birgit Umaigba RN, MEd (@birgitomo) November 27, 2021
Hoard vaccine, manufacture vaccine inequity, create conditions for emergence of variants, then ban and isolate. https://t.co/gRMCu9qimT
— Oni Blackstock, MD, MHS (@oni_blackstock) November 26, 2021
Hell, even the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called out the world’s bullshit.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said in a press conference addressing the blacklisting of South Africa around the world.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science. The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.
“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries,” he continued.
Moving forward, it’s time we check ourselves before blindly allowing dominant powers to tell us who is to blame. Racism has no place in a pandemic, and it needs to stop with us and the way we talk about Omicron. As we’ve seen before, racist ways of thinking sure as hell won’t be stopping anytime soon with our discriminatory leaders.