On Nov. 24, South Africa reported the first case of Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant.
News of this new variant spread faster than a forest fire and barely 24 hours later, thanks to the media, most countries were aware of South Africa’s new discovery. I am constantly impressed by how easy the media has made spreading information across the globe. Still, I must admit, I get disappointed by the bias that at times clogs news coverage — like in the reporting of the Omicron variant.
When South Africa reported its first case, most news articles that I came across were about how a new, dangerous and ‘heavily mutated’ COVID-19 variant had been identified in South Africa and how another wave of new COVID-19 infections was to be expected. In response to these reports, some countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, European Union members, Canada, Guatemala, Turkey, Oman and Sri Lanka, imposed travel prohibitions on travelers from South Africa, among other African countries.
It is not the first time countries have imposed travel bans on other countries as a measure to contain COVID-19. However, the fact that some nations adopted a selective-banning approach is questionable. Although South Africa was indeed the first country to report a case of the Omicron variant, new reports show that it was already spreading in Western Europe before South African scientists reported it. It is still unclear where the variant originated. Instead of being applauded for being the first to alert the rest of the world following its discovery, South Africa instantly faced a ban on flights, first from Britain and then various other Western countries, including the U.S.
My criticism of the ban imposed on South Africa is in no way a naïve disregard for the safety of the previously Omicron-free countries’ citizens. Rather, I am concerned by the apparent discrimination that has been displayed in the precautionary measures taken by some nations. Barely a week after it was first reported in South Africa, the Omicron variant was detected in various other countries like Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Switzerland and Botswana. However, when imposing a travel ban, the U.S. for instance, banned travelers from Botswana and other African countries such as Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It doesn’t take a second glance to notice that of the countries with Omicron cases, only Botswana is on the African continent, and guess what? It was the only one from the list that faced a travel ban from the U.S. As much as I would like to think so, I doubt that was just a coincidence.
Had the U.S. banned passengers from Belgium, Germany, Britain and other Western countries on the same list as Botswana, the ban would have just been a preventive measure. However, that is far from what was done.
Although a powerful information tool, the media has played an unignorable role in how the world’s most powerful countries have reacted to the Omicron variant. For as long as I have known how to read, I have read hundreds of articles whose portrayal of Africa is biased, uninformed and discriminatory. One thing that these articles have in common, apart from the negative light in which they depict Africa, is the fact that most are written by non-Africans. This fact should put into question the information they provide, but it apparently doesn’t, as one can tell from the large number of Westerners who still hold distorted ideas of how awful life in Africa must be. To this day, some still perceive Africa as a hostile, disease-stricken and hungry continent.
With this prejudiced image in mind, it is no surprise that European and Western nations spiraled into a panic after a new variant was reported in one African country. This does not in any way excuse the selective banning, however.
If there is one thing this pandemic should have taught us, it’s that the human race is fundamentally more alike than we sometimes are willing to admit. We have the same vulnerabilities, which should pull us closer together rather than drive us apart. If the world is not united in its effort to fight the pandemic, it might take us much longer than it should to completely eliminate it.
Divine Mbabazi is a junior integrated science major. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.