Omicron in South Africa: a sour note

Ein Kind wird im Township Diepsloot in der Nähe von Johannesburg mit Pfizer gegen COVID-19 geimpft
Ein Kind wird im Township Diepsloot in der Nähe von Johannesburg mit Pfizer gegen COVID-19 geimpft. Obwohl Südafrika mit der COVID-19-Impfung für Jugendliche zwischen 12 und 17 Jahren begonnen hat, ist die Impfquote mit 24 Prozent vollständig Geimpften trotz inzwischen ausreichend vorhandenem Impfstoff deutlich unter dem Niveau der meisten europäischen Staaten und dem weltweiten Durchschnitt von 42,7 Prozent. © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Denis Farrell

"We should not panic" was the key message conveyed by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa during his address to the nation on Sunday, 29 November 2021. Easier said than done: a still largely unknown variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly throughout South Africa - and the country is once again the focus of world attention. The virus variant, dubbed "Omicron" by the World Health Organisation, is currently being registered in numerous countries worldwide, including Germany. But nowhere has Omicron spread as rapidly as in South Africa.

The identification of the new COVID-19 variant by South African scientists brings back memories of B.1351. A year ago, the highly infectious Beta variant was first detected by a research laboratory in KwaZulu-Natal province and subsequently became known as the "South African variant". The international community to a large extent reacted restrictively, declaring South Africa a high-risk area, coupled with strict restrictions on travelers returning from the region. The result was a massive slump in economic activity, especially in the tourism sector, which is so important for South Africa. In the view of many South Africans, the country was punished for its renowned scientists discovering new corona variants and thus averting great harm to populations worldwide.

Harsh criticism towards the international community

The detection of the Omicron variant threatens to repeat this traumatic experience: Flights from the European Union, the U.S., Canada, Singapore, Japan, Israel, and Australia have been suspended or limited to bringing back their respective nationals. Across the country, tourist establishments are bracing for a rolling wave of cancellations for bookings in the peak season around Christmas and New Year's Eve. The expected damage to the South African economy can already be estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars - a major blow to the country with the highest unemployment rate in the world.

In his State of the Nation address, Cyril Ramaphosa was accordingly sharply critical of the international community:

“We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from several Southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant. This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of G20 countries in Rome last month. These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country”

Cyril Ramaphosa

Despite the criticism of the behaviour of other countries shared by many South Africans, there is no denying that the number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa is rising at an alarming rate. Unlike some parts of Europe, infection rates are still under control, though mandatory vaccinations are currently in discussion at the highest government level in South Africa. With 24 percent of the population fully vaccinated, the vaccination rate in South Africa is well below the level of most European countries and the global average of 42.7 percent, even though sufficient vaccine is now available. It is therefore highly likely that vaccines will soon be declared compulsory for public engagements. 

One of the most dangerous pandemics of our time

But for many South Africans, given the high incidence rates in Germany and Europe, only frustration and a bitter aftertaste remain in the face of the new restrictions. For almost forty years, the country has been desperately fighting one of the most dangerous pandemics of our time: around 7.5 million people in South Africa are infected with HIV/Aids, and the country has the highest infection rate in the world. Thanks to decades of efforts to combat HIV/Aids, leading research institutions in South Africa specialise in viral infections and genome sequencing. As a result, laboratories can identify new COVID-19 variants quickly and more precisely than others.

Many African countries still do not have enough vaccines to protect their populations - despite warnings that new and potentially more dangerous COVID-19 mutations could develop unhindered in countries with low vaccination rates. According to a recent study, G-20 countries have received about fifteen times as many vaccine doses as countries in sub-Saharan Africa to date. The emergence of more new mutations in the region is therefore almost inevitable. It is therefore unlikely to be the last time that South Africa is the focus of world attention.

Jordi Razum is a project assistant at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Johannesburg.