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    ‘Omicron’ – A Wake Up Call for Global Cooperation – Not Isolation

    December 2021

    Covid-19, a virus that has, as it journeyed around the world, killed over five million people and upended the workings of our lives. Not so soon after the mandated lockdowns, the school closures, the travel restrictions, the social distancing and, of course, the prospect of death looming large. Not so soon after we started feeling that things were somewhat normal again, more variants of Covid-19 emerged, first detected in South Africa and named ‘Omicron’, is on the loose.

    Several variants of Covid-19 popped up in recent months, which fueled a summer surge in the US, Europe and elsewhere around the world, but most of them never amounted to much. Omicron, however, which scientists have already taken to calling ‘variant of concern’, is expected to present the world with a more daunting challenge. And it is being taken seriously indeed.

    The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that “there’s a high to very high risk” that Omicron, which has already hit multiple countries, will spread in Europe. And in an effort to calm the nation, as federal officials braced for the first case to be detected in the US, President Joe Biden said that Omicron is “a cause for concern, not a cause for worry”, adding that “ sooner or later we are going to see cases of this new virus here in the US but we have more tools to fight it than we’ve ever had before”.

    The thing in my opinion about epidemics, what makes them hit a record in our universal archetype, is that, unlike natural disasters, say, earthquakes, famines, floods or hurricanes, where poor people are often the most vulnerable to the death and destruction that ensue – consider here Hurricane Katrina as one example which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, and for example the unusually heavy rains that displaced at least 1.5 million people in India and Bangladesh in 2017 – is that it is, shall we say: truly democratic.

    The virus unleashed during the pandemic is a force of nature that considers each and every individual, regardless of their race, nationality, ethnicity, class, wealth and gender, to be created equal, and equally worthy of retribution. But a force of nature does not exact seemingly malignant retribution on us for the mere thrill of exacting retribution. Go back to human history and you see how nature – the outward manifestation of God’s omniscience – always made good the havoc if wrought on humans, and how it always compensated them for the agonies they had had to endure.

    Consider, that is, how throughout that history, monumental catastrophes – say, the Black Death of 1348 – 1358, which caused the death of 200 million people, and the Great Influenza, which killed upward of 50 million people – always acted as a tension – producing that agent that propelled societies to think a new of themselves, to imagine alternative paradigms and to thrust themselves beyond their fixed meaning. Social psychologists, along at times with political philosophies, have over the years addressed themselves to that very issue, tirelessly exploring the correlation between crisis and opportunity in our lives – lives lived by us as individuals or collectively as communities. Human progress has almost never been made by happy, (-) people in happy (-) times, but by restless souls in times of crisis.

    In my opinion more global cooperation is required in the fight against this pandemic crisis. Scientists are still scrambling to determine the exact nature of the danger posed by the omicron variant, but that hasn’t stopped much of the world from isolating southern Africa through border closures and airline bans. These efforts amount to using a band-aid to stop a hemorrhage. But as long as access to vaccines is lopsided and large areas of the world don’t receive the adequate assistance needed to combat the spread of Covid-19, new variants and mutations will continue to plague the international community. Instead of isolating southern African nations, the rest of the world should use the emergence of the omicron variant as a catalyst to find new and constructive ways of working together in this prolonger battle against Covid-19.

    It’s in my opinion no coincidence that the latest variant emerged in South Africa. With millions of immunocompromised people suffering from other viruses such as MIV, South Africa is a perfect Petri dish for the emergence of new variants. But this is nothing new. What’s remarkable is the speed at which South African scientists could identify the new variant, alert the international community, and begin working on sequencing the mutation. Thanks to South Africa’s swift surveillance of Covid-19 and the established scientific sector, the international community is in a much better position than during the early days of the last significant mutation with the delta variant.

    Within hours of the announcement, the United Kingdom placed a travel ban on South Africa and other regions. South Africa at this point of the year is entering the height of its tourism season, driven heavily by British and European tourists. The travel ban was viewed with scorn and felt like a punishment for many South Africans. Instead of noting and appreciating that South Africa “put its sophisticated disease surveillance and research systems to good use, and quickly shared the results with the world”, only to have its transparency repaid with damaging travel bans.

    Part of the dismay over the travel bans stems from the fact that Western nations haven’t done enough to protect the rest of the world against Covid-19. Vaccine manufacturers have – so far – resisted calls to open up the manufacturing in emerging market countries, like South Africa, to speed up vaccination rates. Less than 7 percent of the African continent is vaccinated. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the issue of vaccine inequality head-on. “We have said that vaccine inequality not only costs lives and livelihoods in those countries that are denied access, but it also threatens global efforts to overcome the pandemic”, he said. “The emergence of the omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk”.

    To be clear, this isn’t a new issue and I’ve previously written about this topic on several occasions. Since vaccines hit the market, there have been repeated calls to open up manufacturing facilities worldwide to improve access. But vaccine manufacturers and their supporters have resisted. In April, Bill Gates underscored his opposition to expanding the manufacturing of vaccines to developing nations because he felt that most countries didn’t have the technical capacity needed for the specialized vaccines. The primary issue appears to be financial as the technology transfer required to establish operations in countries like South Africa would cut into profits. This is now finally, slowly, changing as companies like Pfizer have announced manufacturing partnerships around the world. But there is in my opinion a long way to go. In one example this year, vaccines produced in South Africa by Johnson & Johnson were being exported to European nations as reserves. Slowing down the appearance of new variants and getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t technically complicated since we know what steps need to be taken, compared to historical pandemic catastrophes.

    Therefore vaccination efforts in developing markets need to be ramped up significantly, and the best way to help this effort is, in my opinion, to expand vaccine manufacturing to more countries. If western countries and pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to take these steps, new variants such as omicron will continue to leap onto the international scene and not only jeopardize global efforts to contain the virus but also isolate countries which have been hit hardest economically throughout the pandemic.

    With its quick discovery of the omicron variant, South Africa has in my opinion proven to be a vital partner in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of prematurely isolating the country, the international community should use this event to engage South Africa more fully and establish a new base of vaccine manufacturing for Africa in the country. No country or group of countries can fight this pandemic by itself, and no number of travel bans will ultimately prevent the virus from moving around the world. More than ever, we need to embrace the spirit of cooperation instead of isolation to ensure that we can put, one day, the pandemic behind us.