The West’s response to omicron is widening the global divide
Just when it was beginning to look as though large parts of the world were experiencing an easing of the COVID-19 pandemic after almost two years of its damaging effects, concerns about the recently discovered omicron variant seem to have pushed us back to square one and the world might be looking at another prolonged period of pain.
Indeed, within less than a week, the omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has been identified in nearly two dozen countries and this number is set to increase rapidly. Many people might therefore think that the leaders of those countries that were quickest to restrict air connections with the entire southern Africa region were acting to protect their populations from another round of pandemic. After all, air travel was how the pandemic spread across the world in the first place.
So no sooner had scientists in South Africa announced the discovery of this new strain than the panicky responses began and the entire EU, as well as the UK and US, immediately banned all flights from South Africa and neighboring countries. Within a few days other countries had gone even further. Japan and Israel, for instance, closed their borders to all foreigners, in what could be yet another domino effect that brings global aviation to a halt once again.
The panicked response by the developed world to omicron was duly called out by South African authorities, who said it was being penalized not only for detecting the variant but also for sharing the information so quickly with the rest of the world.
The world would, indeed, do well to remember that the pandemic spread so widely in the first place because of China’s complete secrecy, intentional or otherwise, about the virus and its devastating ability to spread so easily.
The way wealthy nations have responded to South Africa might well deter other countries from being quite so forthcoming about other new strains of the coronavirus, or even other viral diseases that might emerge in the future.
Moreover, the exact nature and the seriousness of omicron, and its effects on patients, are still being studied. South African doctors, including the one who announced the detection of the strain, have been at pains to stress that, so far, all patients infected with it have displayed only minor symptoms.
Here, unfortunately, the World Health Organization, has played a key role in causing and spreading panic. It has been issuing various alarms without having established the facts about the seriousness of the effects of the variant.
In part, Western nations were responding to the alarms being sounded by the WHO in Geneva. Perhaps the organization was trying to make up for what has been seen as a lax and laid back response earlier during the pandemic. But whatever the reason might be, WHO officials ought to have known better than to be confused by rumors.
The WHO needed, and needs, to play its proper role of leading a coordinated and well-thought-out response to omicron, after employing due diligence to ensure that while the world takes all the steps needed to protect itself from the variant, this does not lead to excesses in either underreaction or overreaction, or bring the global economy screeching to a halt once again.
Indeed, one of the most measured responses came from authorities in India, which simply enhanced the testing at its airports and asked its citizens to be more vigilant about the pandemic. They categorically ruled out cutting air links with the affected countries, which now include all those nations that rushed to close their borders to South Africa.
The pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the rich and the poor, not only within countries but also between countries.
Ranvir S. Nayar
India also said it would boost supplies of vaccines and other medical equipment to the African nations hit by the latest developments. This is perhaps what is needed most in the world today. It is through a spirit of cooperation and assistance that we can best hope to emerge from the pandemic and its effects on the world, and this is especially true of developing countries.
Omicron has again highlighted the deep divide between the haves and have-nots of the world, which has grown over the past two years. The countries that panicked in the face of omicron are the ones that cornered huge quantities of vaccines that were totally disproportionate to their needs, while a large part of the world, especially African nations, continues to wait for inoculation.
As a result, while countries such as Israel are now in the midst of planning a fourth dose for its citizens, and most rich countries are now in the third-dose phase, Africa is still languishing with less than 5 percent of the population having received a first dose.
Most African countries, from Congo and Zambia to Nigeria and Chad, have struggled to get the percentage of population that has received even a single dose of vaccine above 3 percent, as of Dec. 1. In rich nations, by comparison, at least 150 doses have been administered for every 100 people, and close to 80 percent of populations are fully vaccinated.
Those who have been left behind in developed economies tend to be more the result of personal choice rather than a lack of vaccines. In Europe and the US we see thousands of people protesting against vaccines every day and some governments are being forced to resort to mandatory vaccination orders.
The problem facing African nations and other poor countries is quite the reverse: Large numbers of people are waiting for vaccines but they are not available because the West has hoarded them.
Not only have wealthy nations denied poor countries access to enough vaccine doses but now, with the reintroduction of flight bans, they are punishing them further. The resumption of international flights and tourism is key to the revival of African economies, and will also play a big part in a return to a state of normality in the rest of the world.
The pandemic has dramatically exacerbated the divide between the rich and the poor, not only within countries but also between countries.
Until the West responded in a panic to omicron, it had seemed, with good reason, that the world was on the road to recovery and that tourism would be a key industry to help growth to return in many parts of the world.
Instead of promoting this with caution and care, however, the West has again brought the developing world, notably Africa, to the brink of yet another humanitarian crisis.
One can only hope that cooler and wiser heads will prevail around the world and, led by the UN, wealthy countries will review and rescind their border closures. The WHO, too, needs to pull its socks up and start behaving more like a responsible body.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.