Omicron in Blackface: Racist US Travel Ban Scapegoats Africa

December 3, 2021
Yousef Alfuhigi/Unsplash
Derrick Z. Jackson
Fellow

South African and Botswanan doctors and scientists are being punished for their vigilance and expertise. A host of other southern African nations are being scapegoated just for being in the vicinity. This is the global reward for these predominantly Black nations identifying the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Faster than the ink could dry on the World Health Organization’s declaration that Omicron was a “variant of concern,” the United States banned non-citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Most of Europe, Canada and Australia did likewise with a similar suite of nations. For extra measure, some other nations shielded off Angola, Mauritius, Zambia, Madagascar, Seychelles, the Comoros Islands.

The US ban covers a total population of 135 million people and an area so huge that if one flew from the bottom of South Africa to the top of Mozambique, it would be the equivalent of flying from Washington, DC to Phoenix.

This was despite several inconvenient details: No one knows where the variant truly originated and its presence is already approaching 40 countries. Thus far, only five of them are on the Africa continent: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana.

Predominantly White Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia currently account for the majority of nations where the Omicron variant has been reported. Yet, presidents and prime ministers in the European Union did not lockdown travel within EU borders, aside from Austria’s total lockdown already in place for the continent’s COVID-19 surge under the Delta variant. The United States announced no shutdown of travelers from any other nations where Omicron is present.

This is in the face of the generally acknowledged fact that travel bans for infectious diseases, especially selective ones like these, have scant science to attest to their effectiveness, especially for a disease where infections can mushroom before people display symptoms. Any notion of the West halting the Omicron variant in its tracks by sealing off southern Africa has crumbled to bits with the proliferation of infections in Europe and the United States that either involved no travel to that region or predates South Africa’s and Botswana’s discoveries. They include cases in Hawaii and Minnesota.

Gregg Gonsalves, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale’s School of Public Health, calls such bans “pandemic theater.” More accurately, they represent a minstrel show that is less about public health than about  tamping down “the political pressures that inevitably arise when a new variant emerges,” according to Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo. She told the New York Times, “The notion of having a global map of where the variants are and aren’t is just fantasy.”

Saad Omer, who directs the Yale Institute of Global Health, told National Public Radio that such a selective ban is not only “closing the barn door after the horse has left the barn, it’s closing the barn door in the next farm over. It’s not rational.” He said it may dissuade nations from exhibiting the transparency of South Africa and Botswana out of fear that a good scientific deed will be punished. Some South African medical experts say they have received hate mail for being honest. They also fear a shortage in reagents used in coronavirus testing kits, because shipments usually come in the cargo holds of commercial flights that are now grounded.

That is far from the respect these researchers and clinicians should be receiving.  “We owe the African scientists who discovered and reported Omicron a huge debt,” wrote Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist William Hanage in a guest op-ed for WGBH News. “Their work in the lab was outstanding. So were their reporting protocols.”

New ban, old stereotypes

In politically putting a Black face on the Omicron variant in a pandemic that has taken 5.2 million lives of all colors, the United States and the predominantly White West defaulted to one of the oldest tropes in the book of racism. By sealing off allof southern Africa from the developed world, as predominantly White populations freely cross borders, the global North and Australia once more have, in essence, declared Black people the dirtiest form of humanity on the planet, hoping in vain to prevent their germs from co-mingling with the rest of civilization. It also follows a brief attempt last spring by Australia to ban all travelers from India, even its own citizens. The ban fell in a hailstorm of criticism that it was racist.

The ban makes a mockery of what President Biden said this week when he tried to assure US citizens that the virus “is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” That is precisely what the White House and many other governments did with regards to Africa. They panicked.

To be sure, the Omicron variant is troubling with its rapid spread in South Africa. And, in fairness, the list of countries on the bandwagon of banning visitors from southern Africa includes neighboring Angola and Rwanda. That hardly papers over the hypocrisy of the West.

Lest anyone forget, the current global epicenter of the pandemic currently is the West, which is hardly doing an awesome job of stopping the Delta variant within its own borders. Nearly all of Europe and the United States are the hottest spots for COVID-19 on the planet, according to The New York Times December 1 tracking map. Europe accounts for about half of the world’s recent COVID-19 deaths as that continent surges toward 2 million pandemic deaths by next spring.

The United States remains chronically sick with coronavirus. As of the beginning of December, the nation was still facing nearly 95,000 cases a day, nine and a half times more than what White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci once said was the acceptable level to think about going back to business as usual. Even though deaths continue at levels equivalent to a fully packed commercial jetliner crashing every few hours, we long ago became numb to the carnage as we maintain a firm grip on the world’s worst death toll, now closing in on 800,000.

Meanwhile, the US government is almost comically pointing fingers at southern Africa while remaining deadlocked between science and the success of the right wing in turning science into an enemy of “personal freedom,” as expressed primarily by White conservatives. We’ve never recovered from President Trump’s downplaying of COVID-19 as it first swept through cities, disproportionately ravaging Black and Latinx communities.

In contrast to South African and Botswanan scientists detecting the Omicron variant by maximizing their genomic testing capabilities built on fighting HIV and other infectious diseases, the Trump administration’s general war on federal science agencies crippled our testing and surveillance capabilities. Even with Trump out of office, the castigation of science by right-wing politicians has only ramped up, spiraling last month into bitter personal attacks on Dr. Fauci.

These politicians continue to carry a flag of ignorance into battle against mayoral and school district mask mandates and against federal vaccine mandates of the Biden administration. The rejection of COVID-19 science has shredded the concept of the common good. One in three Republicans (who are overwhelmingly White) say in polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation that they will “definitely not” get a vaccine shot. That has become its own contagion, reflected in anti-masking and anti-vaxxing protests in Europe. You don’t see a lot of people of color leading the protests in either continent. 

Bipartisan blacklisting, pun intended

Perhaps the saddest part is that the Biden administration, despite its many positive moves to restore respect to scientific rigor, followed fear more than science in its first major action in response to the Omicron variant. While the administration banned non-citizens of southern Africa from entering the United States, it did not ban US citizens, non-citizen nationals or non-citizens who have a legal tie to a citizen. There is no science that says a legal resident of the United States is any less capable of carrying the Omicron variant than a southern African.

This invites a terrible comparison to the previous administration. While Biden of course did not issue his travel ban with the same fecal expletive Trump infamously used against African nations in rejecting a bipartisan compromise on the racially charged issue of immigration, the Biden administration said the same thing in spirit.

Whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, this nation can’t seem to shed its fear of disease harbored in Black bodies. This reeks of two decades ago, when I went to Guantanamo Bay for the Boston Globe to cover the detention of HIV-positive Haitian refugees at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Intercepted while trying to get to the United States during brutal political chaos in Haiti, they were held there under both Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton.

There was no medical reason to keep them at Guantanamo as HIV/AIDS is not an airborne disease. It was the equivalent of pandemic theater, and the refugees clearly understood they were straight out of central casting. As 28-year-old Verdieu Elma told me in 1993, “White people must be trying to make a perfect planet by separating themselves from the Black people.” Joel Santil, 26, who had been at Guantanamo for more than a year, said, “Maybe they do this to me because I’m Black. I have been searching for another reason. I cannot think of any other reason.”

Fast forward and there cannot be any other reason southern Africa is in pandemic purgatory. You cannot reconcile the imagery of the United States grounding flights for the region’s predominately Black population as White anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers within the nation cheerfully crisscross state borders, oblivious (until they are on ventilators) to how their behavior continues to fill up ICU beds, particularly in the Upper Midwest.

If the United States was really concerned about travel-related spread of the coronavirus, it would drop the ban on southern Africa and instead bar the unvaccinated within our borders from domestic and international air, train and bus travel. When dealing with a deadly disease, the government has every right to treat travel as a privilege, not a right. Other nations, including Germany, are beginning to deny the unvaccinated access to optional leisure and entertainment facilities, such as restaurants, nightclubs and retail shops. The major US cities of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco already have vaccine mandates for indoor venues. Going to a gym, a restaurant, the mall, or a concert is a privilege, not a right. 

No position to throw stones at Africa

The United States must clean its own house before declaring Africa dirty. Despite our vaccine availability, the US population remains only 59 percent fully vaccinated, putting it in 60th place worldwide. At the same time, the United States and Europe deprived Africa of shots by letting biotech call the shots.

In its greed for profits, Moderna continues to refuse to share its vaccine formula, forcing Africans to waste precious time and resources in labs to replicate it. Johnson & Johnson conducted clinical vaccine trials in South Africa and bottled tens of millions of vaccine doses in that nation, only to cruelly export most of them to the West, which has the cash to hoard them.  

According to Public Citizen, more residents of the United States have received their COVID-19 booster vaccines than the number of people in the eight southern African nations under our travel ban who have even received even a single dose. South African scientist Glenda Gray, a leader of Johnson & Johnson’s trial in her nation, told The New York Times, “It’s like a country is making food for the world and sees its food being shipped off to high-resource settings while its citizens starve.”

Public health experts all over the world over say the Omicron variant is the latest reason the West must shelve the profit motive for the drug companies during the pandemic and stop abusing its privilege to hoard vaccines. While many developed nations have crossed the 70 percent mark of people having a first vaccine dose, most sub-Saharan nations are under 10 percent, leaving fertile ground for more variants. Rwanda, Botswana, and South Africa lead the way in the subcontinent with respective first-dose rates of 45 percent, 38 percent, and 29 percent respectively.

The inequities are so stark that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said this fall, “Not to have equitable distribution of vaccines is not only a question of being immoral, it is also a question of being stupid.”

He spoke similarly of the southern Africa travel ban this week, saying in a news conference that travel bans on the “borderless” coronavirus are ineffective and “deeply unfair and punitive.” He emphasized, “The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.”

Penalizing these nations is exactly what the United States and the West have done. Putting a Black face on the Omicron variant only fuels another round of false security in White society, which has already proven fatal in the early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The futility of such nonsense  is abundantly evident in the case of the patient in Hawaii who contracted the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. A press release from the Hawaii public health department bluntly said:

 “This is a case of community spread. The individual has no history of travel.”

The perfect planet will never be here until there is a planetary response to the coronavirus. For the United States, that means starting at home before blaming Black people abroad.

Posted in: Science and Democracy

Tags: COVID-19

About the author

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a 10-time award winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, a 2-time winner from the Education Writers Association, a commentary winner from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and co-winner of Columbia University's Meyer Berger Award