Just as the news of the Omicron Covid-19 variant spread around the world like wildfire, global north countries were quick to impose travel bans on countries from Southern Africa. The travel bans were imposed on the premise that the new variant ostensibly originates from Southern Africa, specifically South Africa.
This expected but obsolete panic outburst in advanced countries reflects what lies at the core of Western medicinal epistemology – the colonial [and neocolonial] belief that Africa is perpetually inferior and it cannot handle pandemics on its own; and that it needs ‘saving’ from the West.
The “racist anxiety” over the new variant reveals the insidious and disingenuous neocolonial and racial tropes that Africa is the heart of devastating plagues and disease outbreaks.
This paternalistic image of the continent undermines serious efforts by African countries to fight the ravaging coronavirus that has overhauled all aspects of life. It also erodes the optimism that vaccine equality across all parts of the world can be actualized.
The colonial image that Africa is helpless without Western medical intervention must be fervently challenged without ceasing. It is a matter of fact that local virologists and epidemiologists discovered the Omicron variant.
What is incensing about the new coronavirus variant is that these arbitrary travel restrictions have been hurled on Southern African countries against the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Essentially the insinuation by global north countries is that their exceptionalism is sacred and Africans should not taint their lands with new mutations of viruses.
The Omicron variant (it has a high number of mutations, according to scientists), was first detected in South Africa, and it resulted in the U.S. blocking entry to travelers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Eswatini, and Lesotho.
Britain was the first to deny access to travelers from South Africa and other Southern African nations – using its dreaded ‘red list’ mechanism. Canada and the European Union followed suit. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also placed similar bans on travelers from the aforementioned countries in Southern Africa.
But this is a twisted narrative. African countries should take matters into their hands and flip the script. This bullying, at a time when the world needs tremendous solidarity and collaboration, cannot be allowed to persist. Africa has long been viewed as the origin of deadly diseases – and the time to folds hands while such narratives are perpetuated is over.
The rebuttal of this global stereotype is hinged on the fact that African countries are equipped with their own agency – medical facilities may not match those in the advanced countries but that does not mean Africa is totally helpless.
African countries should also take note that the global north countries are indulging in a dangerous pattern of history revisionism. Colonial history is replete with how European settlers brought lethal infectious diseases to African populations such as measles, TB, syphilis, smallpox from cattle, gonorrhea, and cholera. Yet Africa is still viewed as the origin of diseases. The opposite is true – Africa is the victim of diseases brought from outside.
Because of neocolonial dependence, African countries may find it hard to retaliate against Western countries in cases like these. As such, this cycle will likely continue for the reasonably foreseeable time. But while these structural changes cannot be changed overnight, African leaders must vociferously oppose this racist moves. They have no place in today’s world. There is only space for solidarity and collaboration.
A response by African countries that places travel bans on Western countries will however be a strong and symbolic action embodying counter-hegemonic narratives. Anti-colonialism, buttressed by altruistic Pan-Africanism, must inform interactions between African and Western knowledge systems in medicine and science for a healthy planet.