Lessons Unlearned

After nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to think or even hope that we are approaching “normalcy,” that a day will come where masks won’t be necessary and social distancing will become a memory of the past. However, the recent outbreak of the Omicron Covid-19 variant is a reminder that there is more to be learned—in both the realm of epidemiology and human responses to epidemics. Specifically, what are the shortcomings presented in scientific and journalistic approaches to the Omicron Covid-19 and how are these processes harmful? 

In particular, after the first outbreak of the Omicron variant in South Africa, the United States and other countries have enforced travel bans to “contain” the mutation. According to António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, however, the virus’s borderless nature means that “travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective.” Further, rather than serving their purpose of slowing the spread of the Omicron variant, travel bans placed on southern African countries by rich countries like the U.S. and European nations would only impede efforts to combat the Omicron variant, given that border closures prevent biological samples from being transported out of the countries. Furthermore, travel bans only cause further economic destruction in poorer countries already devastated by Covid-19. Rich, powerful countries placing these travel bans must recognize that a significant portion of the world’s population does not have the luxury of working from home—much of southern Africa’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and the daily movement of people, which travel bans restrict. 

As quick as Western countries are to pose travel bans on passengers from South Africa, however, these countries and big pharmaceutical companies did not extend assistance to South Africa with equal swiftness. According to one “New York Times” article, African researchers have long posted warnings about the prospect of new variants emerging as a result of delayed vaccination support to Africa, yet wealthier countries have stocked up on vaccines that African countries were in dire need of. Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna failed to provide fair access to the vaccine in South Africa despite having used the region for testing their vaccines in early stages. 

Further, as narratives hyper emphasize South Africa as the location where the first variant was found and scrutinize South Africa’s responses, it’s worth unpacking how journalism can contribute to racialized sentiments regarding pandemics.  Just as the initial designation of Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” incited a wave of anti-Asian vitriol and violence that, crucially, drew on common stereotypes against Asians, conversations and reporting surrounding the Omicron variant must be careful not to perpetuate anti-Black narratives. An N.B.C. article, ironically, on vaccine inequality and Omicron, from November 30, 2021, quotes an assistant director of a global vaccine supply as saying “Africa right now is a super-incubator.” Such language, while perhaps unintentional, nevertheless draws on and sustains colonial narratives of Africa as a “source of disease,” condemning South Africa simply for the crime of having dedicated scientists whose sequencing and transparency have been a major boon to fighting Covid-19. 

Thus, understanding how current mechanisms can cause further harm, we must also make initiative to combat this harm. First, we must recognize and applaud the efforts and successes of countries such as South Africa. Narratives that continuously paint South Africa as a place of diseases and requiring western aid reduce South Africa to merely that, failing to highlight their medical success and innovative problem-solving methods.  

Simultaneously, as we continue to perpetuate narratives that hyperfixate and scrutinize South Africa’s “shortcomings,” some of which linked directly to the actions and inactions of western countries as mentioned above, we fail to learn from successful approaches. Whereas news coverage and response by Western countries have mainly focused on the origin of Omicron being in South Africa, they do not raise enough awareness about the actual progress and transparency of the South African tracking surveillance system. Decades of work in African countries has contributed to the success and efficiency of the current surveillance system, which is the only reason why the new variant could have been quickly identified and its severity analyzed. On the other hand, the same cannot be said of the disease tracking systems in the United States, whose healthcare workers and scientists are so overwhelmed with the spiraling amounts of daily infections that many samples are neglected. According to the “New York Times,” Texas and Florida have only sequenced four percent of the new samples. The contrast of the United States’s surveillance system exhaustion with South Africa’s robust one, nevertheless, is consistently trivialized in news coverage of the new variant. 

The world is far from returning to normal, as emerging variants and inequities continue to provide obstacles for global health and safety. The US has definitely learned many, many lessons for future (unfortunately inevitable) epidemics through the four letters of the Greek alphabet we have already gone through.