Omicron to hit Africa’s economies hard as leaders protest ‘Afrophobia’

Saturday December 04 2021
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa

African leaders have protested the advisories, with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa saying, “The prohibition on travel will further damage the economies and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.” FILE PHOTO | COURTESY

By Allan Olingo

As flight KL592 was in the air between Johannesburg and Amsterdam on November 26, the rules of the Covid-19 pandemic changed.

The spread of an alarming new variant named Omicron, first reported by South Africa, had prompted an abrupt reappraisal of the risks of international travel. The Netherlands banned entry to travellers from Southern Africa. Suddenly, those onboard KL592 were persona non-grata.

The Dutch government was following a familiar instinct, one eventually taken by more than 30 nations. By shutting down travel from Southern Africa, it hoped to keep this new variant out. But that was futile. Not only did the chaotic crammed scenes involving KL592 and another flight by Dutch airline KLM apparently become a petri dish for spreading the variant, it later emerged that omicron was already in the Netherlands.

Dutch officials said earlier this week that they had reviewed genetic sequencing data and detected the variant in a sample collected on November 19 and another on November 23, several days before the now infamous flights took off.

According to tracking data from GISAID Initiative, a global database of coronavirus genome, of the two dozen or so countries that have reported cases of omicron, more than half found the variant in samples taken before the South Africa alert on November 25.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on December 1 that the first US case of the Omicron variant has been identified in California in a traveller who returned from South Africa on November 22.



A comprehensive understanding of Omicron’s spread may be impossible – the  US is only sequencing and sharing around 3.6 percent of its coronavirus samples, according to analysis of GISAID data by The Washington Post, meaning that many samples are not studied closely for variants.

Many other nations lag even farther behind.

The uncertain re-emergence of the virus represents a significant geopolitical problem, deepening the global division that has emerged during the pandemic. Omicron has heightened anger over how wealthy nations have hoarded vaccines at the expense of poorer ones, while countries in Africa have accused nations of “Afrophobia” and “racism” for imposing blanket travel bans.

The earliest known cases of Omicron were found in South Africa. On November 8, researchers took a coronavirus sample that was subsequently found to contain the variant, according to the GISAID database. Scores more cases have been found since, in part due to the nation’s aggressive sequencing responses.

Countries have responded with praise for South African researchers, but also blanket travel restrictions on the nation and its neighbours. Some banned lists have included not only countries that have recorded cases of omicron, but also others that have not, such as Zimbabwe and Namibia. It has been a bitter pill for many to swallow.

For Africa, the virus is threatening to unravel the economic recovery plans just when optimism was starting to grow. South Africa, Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have now been flagged as possible omicron hotspots and the continent is increasingly becoming a pariah.

FDI contraction

The closure of borders and targeted travel advisories now threaten the continent’s recovery efforts after 2.4 percent  GDP contraction in 2020 and a 50 percent drop in foreign direct investment that made Africa the hardest-hit region globally, according to the 2021 Africa Attractiveness Report released on Tuesday by consultancy firm Ernst & Young.

African leaders have protested the advisories, with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa saying, “The prohibition on travel will further damage the economies and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.”

South Africa’s concerns are not unfounded. According to the EY report, the continent was poised for a multispeed recovery, although with significant country and regional cluster variances. But, with omicron becoming an Afrophobia tool, this might not happen.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that travel bans are impacting global cooperation against the omicron variant by delaying the sharing of laboratory samples from South Africa, which could help research into the new strain. Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, noted that South African researchers have been keen to share information, data and samples, but travel bans “have caused some challenges for those samples to actually be shipped out of the country”.

“Covid-19 will not be defeated by locking us down,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said during his State of the Nation address on Wednesday. “No one will be safe from Covid-19 until we are all safe.”

Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union Commission chair, said there was no scientific basis for travel bans as Omicron was already circulating in Europe.

“To condemn a country because its scientists alerted the world of the prevalence of a new variant is immoral,” Mr Mahamat said at the joint news conference with UN Chief Antonio Guterres, after the annual meeting between the two bodies.

Mr Mahamat’s words were echoed by President Ramaphosa who said: “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The wider region had been the victim of unfair discrimination, and these the bans would not be effective in preventing the spread of the variant.”

Mr Guterres said the travel restrictions “not only deeply unfair and punitive, they are ineffective.”

The travel bans resulted in an immediate backlash, which forced US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to place a call to South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor to “emphasise the importance of continued partnership” between Washington, the African Union, South Africa, “and the other impacted nations in Africa to help vaccinate populations and combat the impacts of Covid-19.”

Receding economies

The EY report showed that as a region, Southern Africa was greatly impacted by Covid, with South Africa registering the highest number of cases in 2020, which pushed the economy into recession. Eastern Africa proved most robust, with Tanzania and Ethiopia growing the fastest in the region in 2020.

Now the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) is warning that some countries are facing economic collapse unless creditors ramp up debt relief efforts. The warning comes ahead of the scheduled end of the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative — a temporary freeze on payments for 73 low-income countries to help manage Covid — at  the end of this month. According to the IMF, the freeze should go on, along with accelerated steps towards implementing the G20 broader “Common Framework,” a plan aimed at restructuring debt for low-income countries.

According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa’s external debt hit $702 billion in 2020. Some 19 countries in the region are either in debt distress or at high risk, with another 16 at moderate risk. While this excludes oil-rich Nigeria, Angola and South Africa these nations are too struggling with debt sustainability.

Yet only three countries — Chad, Zambia and Ethiopia — have requested for debt assistance so far.

The lack of enthusiasm is partly due to fear that it will be harder and more expensive to take on commercial debt, which accounted for $135 billion of total external debt in 2020.

Before omicron, Africa’s outlook for 2021/22 was mixed, with economies pegging their hopes on recovering trade, rising commodity prices, rebounding tourism and agricultural output.  This was despite mounting debt, high unemployment, low vaccination rates and political unrest in certain regions.

“Africa is projected to grow by 4.6 percent in 2021, then average 4 percent up to 2025,” says the EY report. “Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Kenya are expected to rebound more strongly in 2021.”

Now with China — Africa’s biggest trading partner — instituting new Covid-19 measures in the shipping industry,  this is potentially expected to disrupt the global supply chain, compounding problems for the continent.

In the nine months to September 2021, China-Africa trade stood at $185.2 billion, up 38.2 percent year-on-year, with direct investment in Africa totalling $2.59 billion, up 9.9 percent year-on-year, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. Much of the trade is skewed in favour of China, as the continent imports heavily from the Asian giant.

Disrupted shipping

Beijing’s new containment measures requiring seafarers to undergo a seven-day mandatory quarantine have made it difficult for ships to change crew, a move that is prolonging shipment periods.

“China’s strict Covid-19 quarantine measures are contributing to lags in the shipping process, which could worsen the supply-chain crisis,” said maritime lobby, Global Maritime Forum.

The “reassurances” from the West have not calmed Africa. Most of its economies have had to depend on the World Bank and the IMF for bailouts. A majority are still depending on donations and goodwill from Western countries for Covid-19 vaccines at a time when less than six percent of people on the continent are vaccinated against Covid-19, compared with a 60 percent rate in the developed world.

Vaccine inequality

UN’s António Guterres has warned about the dangers of vaccine inequality, adding that “low immunisation rates are a breeding ground for variants.”

WHO’s vaccine advisory group is expected to meet soon to review data on extra vaccines as wealthy countries administer booster shots to their populations amid debate whether boosters will provide greater protection against the disease.

Africa has been relying on the Covax facility, supplied by the Serum Institute, for its vaccine doses, but this also faced major hurdles after India in April banned exports of vaccines as it sought to deal with its own domestic demand.

The export ban left the continent depending on donations as the Serum Institute only managed to ship out to Covax 30 million of the agreed 500 million doses.

To date, over 90 million donated doses have been delivered to the continent via Covax and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (Avat) and millions more via bilateral arrangements. However, the majority of the donations  have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives.

“This has made it challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity,” said a statement from the WHO, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies.

The agencies argued that having to plan at short notice and ensure uptake of doses with short shelf life magnifies the logistical burden on the African health systems and an ad hoc supply takes up human resources, infrastructure, cold chain capacity that could be directed towards long-term successful and sustainable vaccine rollout.

This week, the Serum Institute pledged to supply 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca to Covax before the end of the year after India resumed exports last week.

Beijing has also pledged to send one billion vaccine doses to the continent. President Xi Jinping said that “Africa and China must close the vaccination gap and prioritise the protection of our people.”

“We will donate 600 million doses directly, while a further 400 million doses will come from other sources, such as investments in production sites,” President Xi said.

In November, US President Joe Biden pledged 17 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union.