‘Told you so’: African countries feel brunt of West’s scattershot pandemic response

Passengers wait to board flights, amid the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov 27, 2021. REUTERS
The cascade of travel closures sparked by the emergence of the omicron variant has triggered resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.

Richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalising parts of the world that they had starved of shots in the first place, scientists said.

“Told you so,” said Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants. “It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support.”

The sense of outrage was most visceral in South Africa, where business leaders predicted that travel bans by Western nations would inflict a dire economic toll, especially on tourism. In the arrivals halls of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International airport, Ronald Masiwa, a tour operator, watched with dread as the information board flipped to red, displaying cancellation notices. Three clients had already cancelled trips overnight, and he feared that many more would follow.

In South Africa, December is traditionally the high season for tourism, one of the country’s biggest industries, and operators had been banking on a surge in visitors from Britain, which had removed South Africa from its “red list” only last month.

“This is devastating,” said David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association. “Many companies have been hanging on by their fingernails, and this is going to wipe them out. It’s going to be dire for conservation, and it’s going to be dire for people in rural areas where tourism is the only economic generator.”

South Africa’s number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — was a small fraction of case counts in countries with similarly sized populations, like Germany and Britain, not to mention the United States. For Frost, the hurried measures were the mark of a blatant double standard.

In South Africa, most of the 22 cases of the omicron variant detected as of Saturday were in Pretoria, the capital city north of Johannesburg. With fears growing that the government would announce a new lockdown, a sense of foreboding hung over one shopping mall, festooned with Christmas decorations, where Mary Njuguna sells beaded jewellery and woven handbags.

The pandemic had already caused the price of imports to soar, and goods from Kenya and Malawi that once arrived in one week now took months, she said. Talk of a new lockdown made her fear what might come next.

“It’s a big, big mess,” Njuguna said.

The travel bans resonated widely in a continent where they were seen as a mark of Western double standards. Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer, said that border closures appeared to be dictated by politics and not public health concerns.

“If you look at the way the numbers are going, we should be thinking about bans on Europe and United States,” she said. “But the border closures are not tied to the public health crisis in front of us.”

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