Just as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 or coronavirus began spreading, the United States and other Western governments imposed a travel ban on 8 Southern African nations: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. South Africa, the region’s largest economy, and where the variant originated, suffered the most from the ban.
On Nov. 19 Malawi’s president, Lazarus Chakwera, whose country was on the list of nations impacted by the travel ban in a social media post said:
“But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on [Southern African Development Community] countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”
Chakwera said that the Western world should be grateful to South African scientists for being the first to identify the Omicron variant and for sharing their knowledge immediately with the rest of the scientific community. Yet, many are the Western countries that decided to close their borders to South Africa, without any certain scientific basis but pushed a fear which has been categorized as “Afrophobia.”
The US decided to reverse its initial decision. As of Dec. 31, 2021, the restriction for those arriving from Southern Africa will be lifted, according to the White House.
The recent travel ban shows us how the power relations established by the West towards the African continent endure over time. Even while our era strives to promote equality, condemning discriminatory behavior, we frequently fall prey to stereotypes dictated by fear and selfishness.
The current situation is dangerous, not only because of the alarmism created by the mass media but also because of the risk of using this case as a tool to have ‘valid’ reasons to close the borders with the African continent. This recreates a climate of hostility and racism that is not necessary in a world that is pressing for globalization.
This may be a reason why it did not take long before the White House changed its mind about the decision to impose the travel ban in the first place.
African Nations Victimized by the West
This situation helps to underline even more how unknown Africa is because Western politicians attack the entire continent and refer to it as a ‘country’ rather than a continent, almost completely ignoring the many cultures and languages practiced throughout the continent, as well as the continent’s history.
Throughout the pandemic, there was little research done to understand what was happening on the African continent. Little was known about vaccinations, the pandemic situation, the problems of violence caused by the COVID tensions in the place once referred to as “The Dark Continent.” But when Western nations felt their interests were threatened following the revelation of Omicron, it felt like this was the first real threat to occur in the entire history of the pandemic.
The reaction of Western countries following the appearance of Omicron is unacceptable. It must be remembered that Omicron will probably not be the last variant to appear.
Europe and America Can’t Run Away from Omicron
Africa, in particular, is characterized by vast differences. Even in South Africa, there are those who refuse to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons, many of which are similar to Western anti-vaccination arguments. So it is critical not to reduce the country to denigrate the country to a singular focus on travel bans because of the virus. If this is the case it may imply the country itself lacks autonomy of thought and action.
Nonetheless, there is a risk that the denigration of Southern African countries will overshadow South African scientists’ efforts to deal with Omicron variant. The real issue in South Africa is the health system’s ability to withstand an emergency, which is exacerbated by the continent’s stark disparities in vaccine access. So, it is serious that Europe should choose to isolate themselves instead of joining forces and creating synergy with the South African effort, even contributing financially, for example, with internal tracing, which has so far been rather scarce or considering funding campaigns to spread vaccinations in rural areas or support for precarious health infrastructures.
Although the world perceives South Africa to be isolated, Europe, with its sea and land walls, may appear to be no less isolated to the African continent. After all, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Instead of isolating itself unnecessarily, Europe should face the reality that this virus appears to be much stronger than it is and that there is little point in running away from Omicron because it is now with it, as evidenced by the growing number of confirmed cases in various European countries. As a result, if Western countries don’t want to appear pathetic and racist, they should urgently consider a new strategy of collaboration with the world’s South, not just when it comes to matters of surplus of their own economic and financial interests.