The colonial undertones of Omicron travel bans

Instead of adopting sound public health policies, the West is once again resorting to colonial-time practices to isolate Africa.

International check-in counters stand empty after several airlines stopped flying out of South Africa because of the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 28, 2021 [Reuters/Sumaya Hisham]

On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated a new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and named it Omicron. A day earlier, researchers in South Africa brought the variant to the world’s attention, citing research from the Network for Genomics Surveillance member laboratories which had detected a new virus lineage in samples from Gauteng province in mid-November.

Instead of applauding the impeccable efforts of South African scientists, hailing its government’s transparency, and coming up with constructive ways to face this new potential threat, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom led the world into banket travel bans on southern African countries. Despite the Omicron being reported in South Africa and Botswana, the travel bans targetted other southern African countries that had yet to record a case. Countries like Malawi have had recorded less than 20 new COVID-19 cases.

Furthermore, these kneejerk decisions were taken when there was still little information on the transmissibility and severity of the Omicron variant, or indeed on its origins. They do not reflect a sound public health policy, but long-held prejudices that continue to deny African citizens the right to mobility and the right to healthcare. The roots of these blanket travel bans, which the WHO says will not prevent Omicron spread, go way back to colonial times and reflect twisted perceptions and marginalisation of Africa and Africans.

During colonialisation, race-based segregation was imposed across Africa in order to keep “white” officials separate from Africans who were considered to be “carriers” of diseases, such as plague, smallpox, syphilis, sleeping sickness, tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera.

Travel bans are the “modern” versions of these policies and have been often used against Africans. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 40 years ago, travel and residency restrictions were imposed on people with HIV, despite there being no public health rationale. These restrictions led to deportations, denial of entry into countries, loss of employment, denial of asylum, and increased stigma and discrimination, which disproportionately affected Africans.

Perceptions that Africa is a “source of disease” have also driven Western efforts, especially by the media, to “blame” the Omicron variant on South Africa, before enough evidence of its origin was made available. Contradictions in this theory – such as European countries detecting cases of the variant in people who had not travelled to South Africa – have not stopped this drive.

The rush to punish Africa suggests that African countries have now become the epicentre of COVID-19, when this is far from reality. This not only draws attention away from Western public health failures and rising numbers of infections, but also erases the efforts of African health authorities and local health systems to contain the spread of the virus.

At the same time, the emergence of “variants of concern” across the world (including Europe) and growing COVID-19 death toll among unvaccinated populations have not dissuaded the West from pursuing vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism policies.

For more than a year, African political leaders, scientists, and activists have been calling on the wealthier nations, to end what has been called “vaccine apartheid”. Several campaigns from #EndVaccineApartheid to #EndVaccineInjusticeInAfrica continue to demand immediate interventions to alleviate acute COVID-19 vaccine shortages.

According to Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, just 7 percent of Africans have been fully vaccinated, compared with 66  percent of the EU population. As of late October, only five out of 54 African countries were projected to hit the WHO’s recommended target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of national populations by the end of the year.

It is estimated that by the end of 2021, wealthier nations will have accumulated about 1.2 billion surplus vaccine doses. These countries refuse to end the stockpiling of vaccines, share licences, technology, and know-how, and waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. This is despite the fact that African nations participated in the testing and production of some of these medical technologies.

Using African bodies for medical experiments in search of cures for various diseases without regard to their safety or best interest is also a colonial legacy. As historian Helen Tilley points out in her paper on medical practices in colonial Africa, colonial authorities turned “the African continent writ large into a vast arena for experimentation”.

It is hard not to see the colonial undertones of using Africans to test COVID-19 vaccines and African labour to produce them, only to ship the doses to Europe and receive in exchange small quantities of the jab in the form of charity – which is also a long-used weapon of marginalisation.

All these policies reinforce the prevailing colonial capitalist order which overlooks equity and justice and privileges some human lives over others. They may provide temporary, false sense of security in the Western societies, but in the long-run, they will only prolong the pandemic and impact not just the lives and livelihoods of marginalised populations, but also those who are more privileged.

Vaccine nationalism, border closures and other inward-looking, discriminatory actions cannot guarantee global health security. We need to see leadership with foresight that recognises that this pandemic, like other global health challenges, feeds on inequality.

Outreach should not be limited to charity, which has long been a band-aid that maintains power over formerly colonised peoples. It cannot be a solution for a world facing constantly changing public health threats. Instead, global health inequalities rooted in systems of economic power imbalances and upheld by long colonial histories need to be dismantled.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.