Early last week, South African scientists announced their discovery of a dramatically mutated variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. By the end of the week, the World Health Organization had designated it as a variant of concern and christened it Omicron, the latest stop on the virus’s march through the Greek alphabet.
Countries around the world fell over each other to announce limits to incoming traffic from South Africa and nearby countries. As of this writing, nearly every non-African country has blocked traffic from southern Africa. Some have even closed up to the whole continent.
Many Africans protested. To us, it seemed as if the world was moving a little too fast, relative to the threat, to isolate us. It felt like a betrayal of the candour of South Africa, which, unlike China at the outset of the pandemic, swiftly identified and reported the new variant without obfuscation.
As if that were not enough, Western media misinterpreted the uproar. The New York Times, for instance, chalked it up to Africans being frustrated with the offending countries for their failure to “deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.”
Writing in The Guardian, Gordon Brown, the WHO’s ambassador for global health financing and former prime minister of the United Kingdom, attributed (without any evidence) the emergence of Omicron in Africa to the region’s low vaccination rates, itself a consequence of the vaccine nationalism of developed countries.
In essence, they made up a sin ostensibly committed by their selfish governments and offered self-righteous mea culpas for it. Obsessed with the idea that everyone needs to get vaccinated to end the pandemic, they missed the point about Africans’ indignation.
I’m here to set the record straight: the protests weren’t about vaccines.
There were two reasons. The first is that the media misreported the new variant, giving the impression that it had originated in South Africa. South African scientists were the first to sequence it, but it had already been circulating in other parts of the world. There is still no evidence that South Africa is the epicentre of Omicron. Yet, non-African governments whipped themselves into an irrational and discriminatory frenzy.
Secondly, supporting the discrimination charge, these countries banned flights from large parts of Africa when only South Africa and Botswana had confirmed Omicron cases on the continent, but they didn’t ban travellers from the many countries in Europe and elsewhere with cases of the variant and much higher overall case counts.
Other African countries had a much more measured response. Kenya declared that it would neither close its borders to South African visitors nor do anything to minimise international travel. The government intends, instead, to ramp up surveillance and beef up its capacity to handle an upsurge in case numbers.
In short, Africans want the rest of the world to stop treating the continent as if it’s some disease-ridden inconsequential corner, to be quarantined away, as if it only matters when it is infective.
At the beginning of the pandemic experts predicted that Africa would be the worst-hit part of the world. They took it for granted that our rickety healthcare systems would buckle under pressure. International media, like wild dogs circling a wounded buffalo, sharpened their pencils and prepared their angles, awaiting astronomical death tolls and ghastly scenes of suffering.
When the initial wave of the pandemic broke on Africa’s shores, the disappointment of journalists and their editors was palpable. Since then, whenever a new wave has begun to gather, they have perked up their ears, salivating for the catastrophe that’s sure to come, only to be disappointed once again when it inevitably breaks.
They so desperately want to tell the story of Africa’s suffering that they are still perplexed that we haven’t dropped dead like flies yet. Omicron gave them a teeny chance to tell the story, and off they ran with it, leaving facts lying battered on the ground, victims along with the Africans that got isolated as a result.
The obsession with Africa’s suffering serves those who claim to care more than those they claim to care about. If Africa suffers, the cavalry can gallop in to save the day. It’s a narrative that even the Chinese are starting to use as a chip in their geopolitical tussle with the West, if movies like Wolf Warrior II are anything to go by.
The problem is that this is not borne out by the facts. So the developed world’s elites are angling for the next best thing, which is to claim the credit for blunting the effect of the pandemic in Africa. Hence their insistence on shaming their governments into sharing more doses of the vaccines.
Meanwhile, ordinary Africans couldn’t care less about the vaccines. In Kenya, where I live, only about 6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Doses of the vaccine are readily available. Vaccination centres are open and accessible to most people. But the queues are short. So short, in fact, that the health ministry is mulling over an ill-advised and likely-to-fail mandate.
At the same time, new daily Covid-19 case numbers have flatlined into the low double digits since the Delta spike in August. Deaths have declined to less than two per day. People are hugging and shaking hands and going about unmasked. And we no longer have a curfew. The same is true of increasingly larger parts of Africa.
With due respect to the dead, Covid-19 has failed to make a significant dent in Africa. While we aren’t quite out of it and must not gloat, there is no indication that this trend is going to reverse. We have suffered more from the measures our governments instituted to control the outbreak, measures that were modelled unthinkingly on what the rest of the world did.
Increasingly, it seems as if the credit for the retreat of the pandemic in Africa will go unclaimed, because only God knows why we’re getting off so easy. This must offend the egos of the heroic elites in the developed world. But the story isn’t about them. It never really has been.