The advent of the Omicron variant has given us a glimpse of an alternative future in which, had the Sars-CoV-2 virus been initially identified in Africa in early 2020, the world would have maybe locked Africa away. There would have been no emergency funding for vaccine development, limited global attention, and Africa would have become known as the continent of Covid.
We may never know the origins of Omicron, but there is now evidence that this variant was circulating in the Netherlands before it was officially identified in South Africa. African scientists’ superior level of pandemic preparedness is what has enabled the world to quickly respond to this new threat. However, the response has entailed the imposition of travel bans – shutting out southern African countries, as well as Nigeria and Egypt, who have now had to pay a heavy price in trade and tourism for identifying this variant in such an expeditious manner.
Travel bans are an important way to contain the transmission of Covid-19, but in this instance the measure is merely performative, given that the variant is already on several continents. What we’re left with is the assumption that the ban is as discriminatory and racist as Africa’s inequitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. It is a myth to say that vaccine hesitancy in Africa is the cause of low vaccination rates. The US, one of the most vaccine-hesitant countries in the world, and with billions of surplus doses, has just under 60% full vaccination coverage, while some countries in Africa have less than 2%, owing to a lack of supply.
The emergence of another variant was an inevitable result of the failure of the international system, and a response driven by domestic politics rather than global solidarity on the part of high-income countries. We knew this was where the hoarding, the delays with intellectual property (IP) waivers and the lack of cooperation on sharing technology would leave us. It was always going to end in more dangerous variants. Why do we now feign surprise?
It does not have to be like this. African countries, which have decades of experience of fighting Ebola, HIV/Aids and polio successfully, are using their technology and knowhow to monitor the virus. But instead of being called on to contribute to tracking its spread, our continent has been rewarded with exclusion and red-listing – an insult added to our injury.
There is no time to lose. This virus is moving quickly, and we in turn need to move fast. Global leadership is needed, but so also is African leadership.
It is time for African political leadership to step up and to push back – African lives are at stake. We must be the masters and mistresses of our own destiny and take a stand for equity at this once-in-a-hundred-years moment. Africa cannot stand on the sidelines of history when it has so much at stake and so much to offer.
The world cannot impede African states and other low-income countries that want to produce their own vaccines, to develop their testing and sequencing capacity and to contribute to the fight against this virus. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we cannot fight this virus alone. We must work together, sharing technology and information with full transparency, as the South Africans have ably demonstrated, to ensure that we do not end up with another variant that could have the potential to be far more deadly than Omicron.
The solutions are simple: we work together, we do not exclude, and we cooperate openly and transparently. This is not an African problem: this is a global problem that requires international cooperation and a greater commitment towards multilateralism. A global pandemic treaty could be a part of the solution, but we must first of all do away with the nationalism that plagues us: we must urgently vaccinate the world.
Next week, when G7 finance and development leaders meet in Liverpool, they will have the opportunity to demonstrate global leadership and solidarity as this next wave of the virus takes hold. Let us follow the science, not the politics.
Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija is the co-chair of the Africa Union Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance and former chief humanitarian coordinator of Nigeria