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Shame on you, Canada — your racial bias is showing


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

I am astounded by the events of the past two weeks following the discovery of the Omicron variant by a team of South African scientists led by Tulio de Oliveira. A long history of solidarity between Canada and South Africa has been severed irreparably. It has proved to be a lesson on how racial hate and stigmatisation are fuelled by ignorance and abetted by those in power.

‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” — Nelson Mandela

When the Omicron variant was discovered by South African scientists, the conclusion jumped to was that it originated in Africa. And the net of racial stereotypes was cast widely.

South African scientific excellence and the openness of the South African government to share this information in providing vital global genomic surveillance data was punished by the imposition of travel bans to SA and countries in southern Africa. This, in defiance of global scientific protocols and the World Health Organization labelling them outrageous, unscientific and counterproductive and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and other critics describing the western bans as “travel apartheid”.

The bans were put in place despite the fact that the Omicron variant was simultaneously identified in several wealthy western countries such as Canada, the US, the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium and more than 50 countries globally. 

And the travel bans remain in place. To add insult to injury, Canada’s requirement for third-country testing and refusing to let travellers use Covid-19 tests from SA and other banned African countries has compounded the controversy and rubbed salt into the festering wound of racism. 

I know, and global health experts say, South Africa’s molecular and PCR testing network is as good if not better than that of Canada because it has two decades of mass-scale experience in a similar technique, HIV viral load testing. The Canadian policy on this is racially discriminatory. 

Canadian federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the third-country testing rule was required because Covid-19 tests are “imperfect” and because there is a need for “unusual and strict conditions” in the current Omicron situation. “Not all tests detect both Covid-19 and the new variant, and also because of the time it takes for people to be sufficiently viral-charged for those tests to be effective, and these are long journeys,” Duclos told The Globe and Mail.

This, about a country that pioneered the first successful heart transplant, and whose scientific innovation led to the invention of the CAT Scan, digital laser, biomedical stem cell technology, full-body X-ray scanner, retinal cryoprobe and many of the medical devices used in Canadian hospitals on a daily basis. 

I struggle to reconcile this formal government position, tainted with such unveiled racism, with the decades I have worked alongside the Canadian labour movement and successive governments in the past to help reconstruct our 1994 democracy. 

In fact, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney received the highest honour South Africa bestows upon foreign nationals, the Supreme Companion of OR Tambo. This prestigious award recognises Mulroney’s and Canada’s exceptional contribution to South Africa’s liberation movement and its steadfast support for the release of Nelson Mandela.

But the cacophony of fake news in the West is often an echo chamber of microwave journalism and prejudice based not on fact, but hearsay and conjecture. 

No, this was not accidental as apologists argue. 

It’s a deep pattern of the many sinful things that happened in our past experiences of slavery and colonialism. The “slave ship” still lives on. It’s integrated into the political and economic systems. It’s cultural. It’s in the DNA of mainstream media. Its oozing pus corrodes the global social fabric. It’s in the immigration policies. It’s in employment. It’s in the border customs that randomly select primarily people of colour for additional questioning. It manifests in the irrational fear of Africa. And everything African. 

Visiting family in Canada at this time, with incessant official phone calls insisting that I take two more Covid tests following allegations that this new variant originated in South Africa, I again experience the wound of racism.

Having a grandson in Canada and now expecting the birth of a second, I dread them growing up in the fearful paranoia I experienced in apartheid South Africa and described as a heresy against humanity by the United Nations. I am hopeful the majority of Canadians, respecting the human rights values as they did in the past, will rise up to challenge the injustice and toxic brew of prejudice being stirred here. 

South Africans have fought against and buried apartheid. Canada is breathing oxygen into racism, a deep fearful strain more virulent than Queen Coronavirus. DM

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