Letters & Opinion

Africa’s Omicron Experience Part 1: The High Cost of Being Honest

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

As if the COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and Delta experiences weren’t enough, or the low affection rates across Africa were too good to stay true, up came Omicron – and down went Africa.

Just days before South Africa’s medical and health authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) they had discovered a new COVID variant that concerned them, the Associated Press (AP) was reporting that scientists worldwide were puzzled that despite low vaccination rates, Africa’s infection and death rates were also among the lowest globally.

An interesting article forwarded to me on November 23 (a day-or-two before South Africa honestly reported its concerns to the WHO).

The authors are Maria Cheng and Farai Mutsaka and its headlined Scientists Mystified, Wary, As Africa Avoids COVID Disaster’.

It said, (in part):

Earlier this week, Zimbabwe recorded just 33 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths, in line with a recent fall in the disease across the continent, where World Health Organization (WHO) data show that infections have been dropping since July.

When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions.

Although it’s still unclear what COVID-19’s ultimate toll will be, that catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.

Scientists emphasize that obtaining accurate COVID-19 data, particularly in African countries with patchy surveillance, is extremely difficult, and warn that declining coronavirus trends could easily be reversed.

But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, chair of global health at Columbia University.

“Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the U.S., but somehow they seem to be doing better,” she said.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa are vaccinated.

For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.

Some researchers say the continent’s younger population — the average age is 20 versus about 43 in Western Europe — in addition to their lower rates of urbanization and tendency to spend time outdoors, may have spared it the more lethal effects of the virus so far.

Several studies are probing whether there might be other explanations, including genetic reasons or exposure to other diseases.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the government has recorded nearly 3,000 deaths so far among its 200 million population. The U.S. records that many deaths every two or three days…

That doesn’t mean, however, that vaccines aren’t needed in Africa.

“We need to be vaccinating all-out to prepare for the next wave,” said Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, who previously advised the South African government on COVID-19.

“Looking at what’s happening in Europe, the likelihood of more cases spilling over here is very high…

Back in Zimbabwe, doctors were grateful for the respite from COVID-19 — but feared it was only temporary.

“People should remain very vigilant,” warned Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association.

He fears that another coronavirus wave would hit Zimbabwe next month.

“Complacency is what is going to destroy us because we may be caught unaware.”

Then came South Africa’s honest report to the WHO…

The response from the richest countries with the highest vaccination rates and spending the most on fighting the virus was swift and brutal.

Within a day or two, South Africa and ten other African nations came under effect flight bans, their tourism economies and national treasuries condemned to veritable death without trial.

Even before the WHO gave the new ‘Variant of Concern’ a name, the USA and UK, G-7 and European Union (EU) member-state lined-up to virtually shut-down their runways to flights from Angola, Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe — and several other continental states were added gradually.

But, as noted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, it was crystal-clear from the very beginning the continent was being unfairly punished, despite the new variant being actually milder than Delta – and it would take at least three weeks for researchers to determine whether any of the fears that led to the backlash against Africa were real, or false alarms.

Africa was doing very well in keeping COVID-19 at bay for 20 months without high vaccination levels, but the WHO also kept pressing the rich nations to deliver on the two billion vaccines they promised to make available to the WHO for 93 poor nations in dire need, but unable to afford.

Only one-seventh of the promised vaccines have been delivered, the richest nations instead channeling most of their hoarded over-supplies to use at home through ‘booster jabs’ that give free third vaccines to persons already twice (fully) vaccinated.

Besides, the ten richest nations that bought over 75% of all vaccines produced are together spending trillions battling COVID variants of interest and concern unsuccessfully, when it will take a couple billion to ensure the entire planet is vaccinated.

When South Africa reported its concern, the new variant had also been found in Hong Kong and Israel and existed in the Netherlands and many other countries on three continents.

But only Africa was targeted for pariah treatment.

The G-7 and EU member-states strongly-opposed the Biden administration’s approval of India and South Africa’s joint appeals earlier this year for relaxation of patent rights to allow developing nations that can to also manufacture and distribute vaccines in the volumes and speed needed.

The rich nations instead ganged-up around BIG Pharma, defended their patent rights and kicked the idea goodbye.

Now, they’ve gathered again to blame Africa for a worse new virus yet unborn, even before engaging in pre-natal analysis.

All that, just because South Africa was honest-enough to report it had also seen what many other nations had also seen before, but chose to remain tight-lipped and deafeningly-silent about.

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