Racism, Hypocrisy, and the Omicron Dilemma

Cape Town Edited

It is often said that it takes a personal crisis to reveal one’s true self. This is as true of societies and socio-political and economic systems as it is of individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic and the management thereof by the Western world attests to this like no other recent global development. It has revealed the racist underbelly of Western society, exacerbated by the fact that the overlap between race and class has resulted in communities of colour bearing a disproportionate burden of the disease. The racism has not only been confined to the national sphere. It has also manifested in the international sphere as Western countries have responded in a nationally chauvinist and blatantly racist manner in their global management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most recent example of this was the response to South Africa’s identification of the omicron variant. Within hours Britain imposed a travel ban and within days other Western countries followed suit. Their justification: to prevent the variant from getting across their borders. But within days of the announcement, it was recognised that the variant had already penetrated multiple countries, long before South Africa had identified the variant. Did the travel ban get removed or extended to non-African countries? No! The travel ban on Southern Africa remained and was even extended to include other African countries like Nigeria, but travel to other countries in Europe, Asia and North America continued as before.

The hypocrisy and crude racism of the Western response so affronted the usually affable South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa that he angrily called out the racism in a publicised national address. The Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, similarly condemned the racist response, as did the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres who went so far as to describe the ban as ‘travel apartheid’.

But to no avail: politicians in the UK and the Western world have become so immune to the racism charge, especially when it pertains to Africa in the global order, that they could not be bothered. There are no consequences and frankly there will be no people in the streets. There will of course be some commentators who will call out the racism, and some grumbles by some activists, but in the end, these are people in another part of the world who can easily be forgotten for they constitute no real political threat.

This is the real tragedy of the Western world’s response to Southern Africa identifying the omicron variant. It makes a mockery of the global platitudes on anti-racism, the universality of rights and the desire to build an equitable global human community. But make no mistake, this hypocrisy will not go unnoticed and will have a consequence. It will create an incentive for countries not to be transparent about variants and health challenges in their midst. We criticised China in early 2020 for not quickly revealing the presence of the virus. But the response to South Africa’s transparent, timeous and responsible global announcement on the variant reveals why countries do not act in this way. 

This will of course be devastating for the global management of the pandemic. The conventional scientific wisdom is that none of us can be safe from the virus, however successful our vaccination efforts, so long as all of us are not safe. Variants emerge and are more likely because of the inequality in global vaccination rates. And these variants put us all at risk and could unravel the vaccination gains made in Western and some Asian countries.

The whole debacle ultimately makes a mockery of claims that we are cohering as a global community. Indeed it has revealed that we are today as far apart as we have always been. And this does not bode well for us as a species. All of our current challenges – this pandemic (and others), climate change, inequality, social and political polarisation – are transnational in character and will require global solutions which demand us to cohere as a human community.

With their travel bans, the UK and the Western world have told Africa and the weaker nations of our world not to trust anyone. They have told these nations that hypocrisy and racism are the order of the day. And they have incentivised most of the world not to look at global solutions to transnational challenges. It is perhaps this that ultimately puts us most at peril as a global human community. 

Professor Adam Habib is the Director of SOAS University of London. He tweets at @AdHabb.

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