Omicron: A wake-up call

December 07, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

The writing had always been on the wall. We spend decades in our lifetimes trying to improve the state of technology, to break new frontiers, to devise solutions to mankind’s biggest worries and greatest challenges – only to find that the worst crisis, and the hamartia that we have always been perennially incapable of addressing, rests with humanity itself. Its proclivities to draw battle lines, to devise camps, to separate individuals in alleged equality – only to leave half of us in despair, and most of the other half in destitute inequalities.

This is not a pious rant of sanctimonious intentions. Nor is this intended to be an opener to a cheesy Quarantino movie. It’s instead an indictment of the state of the world we live in today.

Omicron – a COVID-19 variant first reported in South Africa (though, as we may have learnt elsewhere, by no means indicative of origins); a variant that has, in accordance with initial investigation, three times of Delta’s infectiousness (Delta itself is a more contagious variant than the original COVID strain). It is apparent that this strain of the virus would pose an unprecedented challenge to our ongoing efforts at containing the spread of the disease – even if, indeed, it manages to turn out to be less lethal (insufficient evidence as of yet, for us to draw premature conclusions).

The border shutdowns, the enshrining of lockdowns, and the implementation of harsh quarantine measures seem to be in vogue again – perhaps somewhat ironic, given the waves of criticisms and admonishments directed towards China over the past year and half. Yet what is more concerning, perhaps, is the ensuing stigma and blame game that has once again been kickstarted – with Africa, already the site of many a state that has suffered at the hands of privileged colonialism and imperialism, once again the focal point of the disparaging, indifferent armchair critics proliferate in the media today.

The real culprit isn’t South Africa, or Africa as a continent, or the doctors who have poured hours into identifying and tracing the epidemic in South Africa, or those who have lost their lives to COVID-19 over the past two years. It’s instead the rampant inequalities that undergird our global system today. The dearth of vaccines available to developing countries has rendered economically struggling states (though not South Africa, which has a bottleneck of its own) at a distinct disadvantage in face of the global pandemic. Procuring vaccines is not only expensive, but logistically infeasible for states that lack bargaining power on the global stage – the upshot? Millions of populations left stranded without access to the most vital line of defense against the virus.

To give credit where credit’s due, the US, the EU, WHO, and other leading developing countries, such as China and India, have sought to play their parts and contribute their shares. Much of the ongoing efforts – especially in terms of donations to the global vaccine drive – must be and should be credited to these countries. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough, when a vast majority of countries with the lowest population vaccination rates belong to the Global South. It’s inadequate, when these are also the very countries that are likely to be worst-hit by cascades of infection and contagion rippling through their populations.

As for South Africa, the issue rests elsewhere. It is clear that the country does have relatively ample access to vaccines – so to posit that the Omicron variant, assuming that it had originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, was rooted in a lack of supply of vaccines to the country, would be perhaps erroneous, and too precocious a verdict. It’s instead the vaccine skepticism, spearheaded by a mixture of conservative Christian leaders and radical zealots in the country, that we must take issue with. The advent of Omicron is a harbinger of what would happen, if populations remained reluctant at large to get vaccinated, or to get the booster.

What’s missing in the present diagnosis, however, is the extent to which the anti-vaxx movements in developing countries have in fact been informed by and empowered via their counterparts in America. With leading media commentators, TV pundits, bigots and idiots sprouting absolutely unfounded and unsubstantiated nonsense concerning the origins and remedies to the virus, it is no wonder that America has become the epicenter of perilous, un-scientific discourses. None of this should be blamed on the American population at large, where it is clear that a significant majority remains steadfastly committed to commonsense and science; yet it is clear that the voices of the powerful, the mighty, and the ostensibly credible in the Global North, have only provided fuel and ammunition of affirmation to their counterparts in the Global South. Such ideological contagion and contamination, I posit, is uniquely dangerous.

In any case, there may well be more variants to come; we are a long way away from seeing the end of the tunnel. But there are warning signs that we must heed – and two of them, the dangers of vaccine inequality, and the detriments of anti-scientific narratives being blasted through the airwaves, must be taken seriously, with promptness.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review