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Covid: Global North’s power plays impede transparency amid pandemic

By Rufaro Samanga
Posted on Sunday, 12 December 2021 15:19

South Africa calls British travel ban over new COVID-19 variant 'Rushed'
A passenger in a taxi wears a face mask with colours of the South African flag after the announcement of a British ban on flights from South Africa because of the detection of a new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) variant, in Soweto, South Africa, November 26, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

On 24 November, the South African government announced the discovery of the new omicron variant. Two days later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated omicron as a variant of concern based on the evidence that several of its mutations could potentially affect its level of infectiousness and the severity of Covid-19 that individuals experience. However, following South Africa’s announcement of the discovery of this new variant, travel restrictions were swiftly imposed on them by the UK.

Furthermore, these restrictions were also extended to several of South Africa’s neighbouring countries including Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia – despite a lack of evidence indicating that the omicron variant was present in any one of those countries.

The hypocrisy behind the UK’s red listing

Restricting travel between countries as part of efforts to prevent the spread of Sars-Cov-2 (the virus causing Covid-19) and its variants is not the issue here. That is the go-to and responsible strategy for containing a local outbreak, not least a pandemic on the scale of Covid-19.

However, what is becoming apparent is that countries in the Global North are leading the front on imposing these restrictions, however prematurely and often with insufficient scientific backing and little consideration of economic impact in targeted countries at the time of this decision-making.

What is perhaps most disappointing is that while South Africa and the continent are essentially being punished for upholding the ethical mandate meant to safeguard the interests and wellbeing of the public, emerging information reveals that the omicron variant was already prevalent in Western Europe long before its discovery in Southern Africa.

We need to call it what it is and name it. It’s a misuse of power given a perception of a hierarchy.

The only key difference is that South Africa has state-of-the-art genomic sequencing technology that allows scientists to discover new variants of interest almost immediately and disseminate that information to the rest of the world. And yet in stark contrast, countries like Belgium and Germany have not been placed on the UK’s red list. This, of course then begs the question, what is this really about?

A symptom of a greater problem

Professor Mosa Moshabela, an acclaimed South African public health professional and the current Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research & Innovation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal says that the issues here are concerns of discrimination and profiling by the Global North.

“We need to call it what it is and name it. It’s a misuse of power given a perception of a hierarchy,” he says. “There was profiling. If South Africa was a powerful country, they [the UK] may not have behaved the same way because South Africa would retaliate.”

Moshabela further emphasises the need to recognise this existing power dynamic for what it is and not refer to it as mere ‘politics’. “When you refer to any of this as politics, it’s almost as if there is something sacred there that needs to be protected and there isn’t.”

In addition to profiling and discrimination, Moshabela asserts that the Global North is, in essence, responding to a problem they created.

“Low vaccination rates in Southern African countries were used as a reason to justify these recent travel bans. But the vaccination coverage is low in these regions because there was the hoarding of vaccines in the Global North, Moshabela explains. “And so, you create a problem and then use that same problem to subject these countries to unfair treatment. There is also no accountability for the consequences resulting from not wanting to share vaccines.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is currently the Covid-19 Champion for the African Union, has been steadfast in his mission to empower African countries to manufacture their vaccines instead of waiting for handouts.

After months of endless debate on intellectual property rights to vaccine development and resistance from several pharmaceutical companies, South African company Aspen Pharmacare is on the cusp of signing a deal with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to secure a licence to package and sell J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine.

While the WHO has described it as a “step towards vaccine equity”, one could argue that it is, for the most part, cosmetic. It is still a long way off from African countries having the agency and capacity to manufacture these vaccines domestically.

Transparency is key to fighting the pandemic

A report on transparency in the development and procurement of Covid-19 vaccines by the WHO and Transparency International, a non-governmental anti-corruption organisation, highlights several factors to consider.

People will eventually have to respect South African epidemiologists and scientists even more for the work we’re doing.

The first is the lack of cohesive global policy on transparency which results in information only being shared voluntarily by significant stakeholders.

Furthermore, transparency has become a much more pressing issue than the UK’s red list, especially given the large amount of public funding and resources to fund the development of vaccines. There is also an urgent need to tackle vaccine hesitancy and foster public trust.

Oratile Mokgethi, a South African epidemiologist with the WHO, echoes Moshabela’s sentiments, saying, “The more transparent we are, the better we’ll be able to manage this pandemic.” Speaking about the penalties recently imposed on South Africa, Mogethi highlights how the country’s monitoring procedures and genomic surveillance are fundamental to fighting this pandemic.

“People will eventually have to respect South African epidemiologists and scientists even more for the work we’re doing.” She adds that “We should be collectively focusing on fighting Covid-19 but with the low level of transparency we’re seeing in other countries right now, it is quite frustrating.”

The way forward

The take-home here should be that transparency and cohesiveness have to be at the centre of fighting this pandemic.

According to Mokgethi, countries can help each other by daily case investigation, rapid contact tracing and testing, and increasing vaccination rates across the board. In the absence of any definitive treatments or cures, vaccinations are the current standard of care for Covid-19.

“Vaccinations allow those who may contract Covid-19 to have lower viral loads; the virus doesn’t replicate as much as it would [in those unvaccinated] and the level of infectiousness is also reduced. Those are all very important to consider”, he says.

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