South Africa
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IVOR ICHIKOWITZ: Panic and prejudice instead of calm and collected

SA found itself on the receiving end of its own excellence last week. It wasn’t a new experience, just the rotten fruits of centuries of exploitation, overlaid with the more recent Afro-pessimism with a dollop of Perfidious Albion for good measure.

Our scientists, and our virologists in particular, have been at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19, sequencing genomes and helping develop and now manufacture vaccines to combat it. Last week, scientists alerted the rest of the world to a new variant, one that could be more virulent — and potentially vaccine resistant — than the others we have seen to date.

The reaction of the world — and Britain in particular — was instant. All flights to SA were summarily suspended, to the absolute consternation of our Southern Africa diaspora, many of whom live in the UK, and the absolute despair of our tourism industry for which the overseas end-of-year tourism market is the structural spine.

International sporting fixtures were thrown into disarray; British rugby teams that were actually in SA summarily cancelled their matches and headed for the airport. As I write this, three days after the games were postponed, they are still waiting forlornly to catch a flight.

In Europe the blind panic, fed by nothing more than arrant prejudice, was exerting its grip; a KLM flight in from SA was held on the tarmac for hours until everyone was tested — and then quarantined.

All the while, the news from the north was ominous; one country after another following Britain’s lead and banning Southern African countries. The anger here in the southern tip of the continent, where I am from, was palpable. How do you argue against prejudice and blind fear? South Africans have 350 years’ experience in just that, but the truth is it doesn’t make it any easier.

We live in a country that didn’t hesitate to implement the harshest lockdown in the world in March 2020, when the extent of the pandemic became known, and with it the potential to collapse our public health system and the prospect of unimaginable carnage.

It’s the same country whose president worked tirelessly to secure vaccines for the rest of Africa in his time as chair of the AU, that same country where unprecedented public-private partnerships worked tirelessly to roll out the biggest vaccination drive at any time in our country’s history.

It’s also a country where masks in public are mandatory, social distancing is enforced and handwashing evangelised. Outdoor mass gatherings are heavily regulated, open-air sports stadiums built for tens of thousands of spectators can only now, after months of the lowest infection rates since the pandemic began, take a maximum of 2,000 people.

It’s a far cry from 10 Downing Street, where the British prime minister is perennially pictured in public without a mask anywhere close to his mouth. It’s a far cry from Twickenham almost a fortnight ago, where 80,000 fans flocked to the game, nary a mask between them — and yet SA fans were now being blamed for causing a superspreader event.

Here, there and everywhere

By Monday morning the Omicron variant had been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, SA, Switzerland and England. The US, as just one example, had banned any travellers from SA, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe — despite the last six countries having no recorded cases. If this was precautionary, why was it still allowing travellers from Israel, Belgium, Hong Kong, the UK, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic?

You don’t really need to spell it out do you? When someone as polarising as English journalist Piers Morgan has to be the voice of reason in all of this — and to be seen as such by South Africans, who would generally detest anything he would say, just on principle — it shows just how out of control this entire scenario has spiralled. What makes it even more galling is that we don’t know how dangerous the Omicron variant actually is. We know that it is more virulent, but at this stage we don’t know if it is any more fatal than the previous mutations. The mass hysteria in the corridors of power would suggest that this was the chimera virus, popularised by Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II, ready to destroy the world, except now it was the South African virus.

The sad part is that this isn’t new. The British government red-listed us before, in September. The decision then was as illogical and scientifically unsound, but the prejudice was identical; countries with higher infection rates, but in the north, were unaffected. At that stage, we had passed our third wave and were recording 4,000 cases a day. Turkey, on the other hand, had 23,000 cases a day and the UK had even more.

What this latest panic does do, as President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out in his latest address to the nation on Sunday evening, is to seriously undermine any hope of the global solidarity we need to properly combat the pandemic; it incentivises unethical and opaque practices at the expense of the transparency, honesty and highest ethics that are so vital right now. Who will sound the alarm for the next variant? Would you, knowing the possible consequences for your reputation or your country, given the proven nature of viruses to mutate and keep on mutating until they finally burn out?

Science, not demagoguery

This is a time for science not demagogues. Let’s leave the real decisions to the people who know what they’re doing, not populists panicking and pandering to their prejudices. What we should be doing is bringing about an end to the unequal distribution of vaccines between the north and the south, encouraging mandatory vaccinations internationally and working together globally to create a safer community for all. That’s the real lesson of the pandemic: when one of us is at risk, we are all in danger, until none of us are.

Closing borders doesn’t help — after all, the Scots who contracted the variant had never been to Africa. But that doesn’t suit the north’s perennial Afro-pessimism narrative, does it?

Ichikowitz, founder and executive chair of Paramount Group and executive chair of TransAfrica Capital, chairs the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. This article was written for, and first published by, USA Today.