Covid: The unwritten letter from Southern African leaders…

Kurt Davis Jr.
By Kurt Davis Jr.
Investment banker

Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He earned a M.B.A. in finance, entrepreneurship, and operations from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a J.D. in tax law and commercial law from the University of Virginia School of Law. He can be reached at

Posted on Tuesday, 7 December 2021 17:08

Virus Outbreak South Africa
Buetwa Maguga, from the Lawley clinic, meets with local government officials in Lawley, South Africa, for the launch of the Vooma vaccination program against Covid-19 Friday Dec. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Dear World,
Apologies, we intended to write this letter last week. But we are happy that we waited a week to let other countries confirm the presence of the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

When scientists in South Africa identified the omicron variant, we were proud as a continent. The Omicron variant was discovered and information was shared internationally to ensure the world could quickly respond. The response, to our surprise, was the announcement of various travel bans on southern African states.

Did you know that we are likely to discover these variants with our high-class scientists? They have been doing a lot of research on other complex health issues, such as AIDS, TB, and Ebola.

We doubt that if a country in western Europe or North America discovers a new variant, the world would close borders to that region in a similar fashion.

We understand the WHO decided to skip over two letters in the Greek alphabet—nu and xi—in naming this variant. The WHO skipped “nu” because it was too similar to the English word “new”, which could have been a problem if it was understood as the “new covid.” The WHO also skipped “xi” because it is a common last name and using it would have violated the WHO’s guidelines for naming diseases…

…We also assume the WHO wanted to avoid naming a variant by a name that would have associated it with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Senator Ted Cruz did tweet: “If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?” We are not exactly backing Cruz…but we are wondering about the politics around this pandemic.

And we mean all the politics…

First, western leaders are trying to outdo each other with measures to contain the new “Omicron” variant: Travel bans. Reinstate quarantines. Bring back mask mandates. Actually, let’s say rich country leaders (“RCLs” for short) because it is more rich country policy than purely western country policy. RCLs are playing politics with the hopes that their fellow citizens will be ‘impressed’ or ‘sold’ by policies that symbolically protect them in the short-term. Sadly, the statistics and science demonstrate that the virus is more likely to transmit and mutate in populations with low vaccination levels.

Thus, we must ask what is the game plan for the world since the Omicron cases have already been registered in several European countries. Nearly 30% of the UK is not fully vaccinated…should the world close borders to the UK? So how do we slow the spread?

Secondly, should we take the view of French Health Minister Olivier Veran, who when describing Omicron case numbers in France, stated: “It is probable that there are currently cases in circulation.” We tend to agree with this theory.

If you look at the people coming in and out of South Africa in recent weeks, a significant number of them have been Europeans. This suggests that this new variant had already spread outside Africa at some level. Thereby these travel bans, simply put, are relatively ineffective reactionary responses.

And thirdly, shall we address the elephant in the room? Vaccinations. The lack of equity in vaccine distribution, especially in poorer countries—many of which are in Africa—is a problem. RCLs have pledged to donate over a billion vaccine doses in 2021 with hundreds of millions pledged for 2022.

Only a few days ago, Chinese President Xi promised an additional billion vaccine doses. This is great but we really need to work together on how to get more doses into the arms of Africans. We recognise that this effort also includes having a thoughtful discussion on the growing number of people in Africa and beyond who are against taking the vaccine.

The entire world will be at the mercy of this virus and its many mutations as it navigates the majority (i.e., 50%+) and significantly (25%) unvaccinated populations. Yes, we understand those two categories suggest more than half the countries in this world are at risk…that was not a mistake.

The truth of the matter is that vaccination efforts both in rich and poor countries are not at the level we would hope.

We sadly are used to unvaccinated Europeans and rule-ignoring Europeans (i.e. the non-mask wearing type) visiting us and then running back home when a new variant has been identified. But maybe we can all work together in solving this pandemic. It is obvious that we need to vaccinate more of the world because the virus is likely to mutate at a quicker rate within unvaccinated populations, particularly if there is not much testing in that population to catch early cases.

The plan for solving for each new variant cannot be travel bans and border closures first because this will NEVER be equally applied to each country and secondly because this would disincentivize countries from announcing the discovery of new variants.

Additionally, the economic destruction caused by border closures and outright panicked behaviour cannot be the norm. There is a significant portion of this world’s population that depends on tourism and the daily movement of people to earn a living. Or, other words, not everyone can make a living working remotely.

We ask that we all be more thoughtful in how we approach covid-19 today. It would be really sad if 2022 only becomes a replay of 2020 and 2021.

Thanks for your time,

Southern African Leaders

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