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The UK’s Omicron travel ban: Science or partisan politics?

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Dr Remy Daroowala is a freelance writer from the UK now living in Cape Town. Trained as a medical doctor, he has worked in rural hospitals in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

The unequal implementation of the travel ban leads me to wonder if southern African countries are on a red list, or perhaps more accurately, on a black list?

“The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Africa.

On Thursday 25 November 2021, the UK government met to discuss a new Covid-19 variant, as of then, unnamed. It had been first detected in Botswana, and shortly thereafter in South Africa. A credit to the work of world-class researchers and advanced viral genomic sequencing facilities.

After little deliberation, the UK government placed Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho and Zimbabwe on their red list. Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia soon followed. The World Health Organization (WHO) had advised no such action at this point, but once the UK had jumped the gun, the rest of the world saw their hand forced. Caution is understandable in such a situation, but it’s difficult to see this move as anything but cynical politicking by a UK government that has been floundering for some time.

In the weeks running up to this, the British prime minister — documented racist Boris Johnson — had been photographed maskless while touring a hospital and again in a packed theatre in London, this time with his mask on his chin. This very same leader of a United Kingdom averaging over 25,000 new cases of Covid-19 a day since August and with 36,500 new cases as of 29 November. The same leader of the country where masks will only be mandated from 30 November, and then only in shops and on public transport.

Johnson and his government have been under some pressure in recent months. Last year, after promising a normal Christmas, the PM was forced into a disastrous last-minute U-turn, cancelling plans to allow families to see each other over the holidays. As people scrambled to get home before the new rules took effect, train stations were swamped, social distancing flew out the window.

This year, despite tens of thousands of new cases a day and prominent scientists backing tighter restrictions, Johnson once again promised his public a proper Christmas. A fortnight later, the PM pointedly shone a light on other countries, talking of “storm clouds” over Europe, this time refusing to rule out any restrictions, which he gently rebranded as “non-pharmaceutical interventions”.

Any sort of climb down, even gentle, will damage a leader whose public image has been recently tainted by a corruption scandal. Enter Omicron, stage right, the perfect foil. Any further restrictions needed in time for the holidays may be conveniently blamed on foreign invaders.

A team led by Zimbabwean scientist Dr Sikhulile Moyo first isolated the Omicron variant in samples taken from four foreign diplomats on 11 November. The Botswana Ministry of Health and Wellness has not revealed their country of origin, at the risk of geo-politicising the variant. Admirable of them, but the UK has no such skaam.

At the beginning of 2021, then health secretary, Matt Hancock, took great pains to describe the Beta variant as the “South African variant”, a public image hit job that meant foreign countries could shoulder the blame for failures of the UK government. South Africa’s subsequent red list status cost the country around R800-million a month in lost tourism revenue and was needlessly enforced long after concerns about the Beta variant had dissipated.

After a little over a month off the naughty list, we find ourselves once again in a dishearteningly familiar position. While the lip service paid to our world-class infectious disease researchers is an improvement from last time, the travel bans and damage to the reputation of the countries involved remain heavy-handed and punitive.

Yes, Omicron calls for careful surveillance and research, a task that our researchers will surely meet. Yes, Omicron is in the ascendency over the Delta variant, but this is in the context of relatively low overall numbers of infections and a paltry 24% of the country vaccinated. No, travel bans are not entirely unjustified, but in our interconnected world they are of limited effectiveness and in this case, have been lopsidedly applied to African countries.

In a strange exercise of confirmation bias, travellers returning from these “at risk” destinations are rigorously tested while those from others are not. While African countries face the indignity of bans, Omicron has been identified in over a dozen others, with evidence of community transmission already taking place. The horse has bolted.

Currently, we know only where Omicron was first identified and not where it originated. What we also are painfully reminded of is that vaccine inequality hurts us one and all: lower- and middle-income countries like Botswana have been forced to pay over the odds for vaccines and are yet to see them delivered. IP restrictions, hoarding and price gouging are rife.

Maybe Omicron did start in Africa, but greed and cynicism? Well, the developed world wrote the playbook on that one. So, if they’re looking for someone to blame, they might do well to start searching at home. DM

Gallery

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