Less than 24 hours after South African scientists announced the discovery of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, rich countries in Europe, as well as Canada and the United States, slapped highly damaging, blanket travel bans on a swathe of southern African countries. The imperialists are reacting in a haphazard fashion to the discovery of this new strain, whose emergence they facilitated to begin with through hoarding the world’s vaccine supply.
This has been their approach at every step of this seemingly endless pandemic: abandoning any semblance of international cooperation, taking short-sighted measures intended to serve their narrow interests, and forcing poorer countries to shoulder the consequences.
Instead of helping in the fight against the pandemic, these measures will have precisely the opposite effect. They will disincentivise countries from providing data on the evolution of the coronavirus, and make it even harder for southern African countries (whose social medical infrastructures have already been ravaged by imperialism) to respond to the new variant.
This is aside from the devastating economic impact of these travel bans, which will exacerbate the misery of the workers and poor in these countries. Predictably, these measures also did not prevent the spread of the variant to the countries in the West. Already, airborne community transmission has been confirmed in the UK, the USA and Europe.
It took scientists in South Africa just five days to reveal the discovery of the new, highly mutated, Omicron variant to the world. This fact promptly revealed the sheer ignorance in the West about South Africa’s capabilities to perform genomic sequencing and surveillance.
The fact is that South Africa has one of the most advanced systems of viral phylogenetics in the world. At the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban, where the Omicron variant was discovered, scientists sequence the genomes of thousands of coronavirus samples each week from across the world. The KRISP lab is part of a national network of virus researchers that identified both the Beta and Omicron variants. These capabilities were developed during the country’s decades-long fight with the H.I.V. epidemic.
Although the variant was first identified in Southern Africa, there is no way of knowing for certain whether it emerged there initially. According to the government of Botswana, the initial samples which were sequenced by South African scientists, containing the Omicron variant, came from visiting diplomats from Europe. The likes of the US, Canada, the EU and the UK, which introduced travel bans against South Africa and its neighbours are the same countries which have hoarded huge amounts of COVID-19 vaccines early, resulting in large, unvaccinated populations in poorer countries all over the world, which are ideal environments in which the virus can mutate. The whole world will suffer because of the shortsightedness and stupidity of the ruling class in the West.
Unscientific travel bans
These travel bans are intended to slow the spread of the virus, but won’t stop it, and they will undermine how the virus is tracked. As a consequence of these indiscriminate bans, the same South African scientists who discovered Omicron now say that, due to the travel bans, the country is in danger of running out of the imported COVID-19 testing reagents needed to track the strain’s spread.
Elsewhere on the African continent, the World Health Organisation has warned of similar shortages. This is because many countries on the continent rely on air travel to ship SARS-CoV-2 specimens to countries like South Africa for the kind of gene sequencing that allows the world to track the rise of variants like Omicron.
Additionally, the supply chain to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to Southern Africa, where fewer than one in 10 people are fully vaccinated, has been interrupted by the travel bans. To add insult to injury, these travel bans will increase the cost of deliveries and further delay shipments. This threatens to widen, not close, gaps in global vaccination that allow the virus to spread and mutate.
The fact is that the travel bans may delay the introduction of a new variant to other parts of the world, but are not enough to completely ward off the arrival of the strain. That Omicron is now present in around 63 countries is clear evidence of this.
These punitive bans also involve a staggering double standard. For example, the Netherlands has belatedly identified at least two cases of the strain in samples collected before South Africa’s announcement of the existence of the new variant. Similarly France’s health minister has said the variant was probably already circulating there. But neither France nor the Netherlands have faced what are, fundamentally, racist travel bans.
Similarly, the Omicron case detected in Minnesota in the United States is in a patient with no recent international travel history and who was likely infected while in New York City before the Thanksgiving holidays. This indicates community transmission among people who have no idea how they were infected. The UK government has recently announced there could be thousands of cases circulating in the country already. But again, there have been no bans placed on the USA or UK.
While there is a high volume of cases in South Africa (particularly the Gauteng province where Omicron was first detected), only a bare handful of cases have been detected in places like Nigeria and Mozambique. Yet these countries have faced travel bans all the same.
Admittedly, this is partly due to a lack of testing, but nevertheless it is completely illogical to impose these punitive travel bans on Southern Africa while sparing the western world.
This kneejerk travel ban is eerily reminiscent of the outbreak of the pandemic. Travel restrictions against China, issued by the Trump administration in January, 2020 did very little to stem the tide of the first deadly surge of infections. In fact, data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated that travellers from Europe were likely responsible for introducing the virus in New York City before the city's early surge of cases in spring 2020.
Restricting flights from China did little to prevent the virus from entering from other parts of the world. Far more significant in assisting the spread of the disease was the slow manner in which capitalist governments in Western countries implemented social distancing and lockdown measures within their own borders, so concerned were they with keeping profits flowing. But in combination with Trump’s inaccurate and racist portrayal of the virus as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” the restrictions propelled xenophobia, stigma and anti-Asian racism that has persisted to this day.
Now, the Biden administration together with European countries has gone down the same road, this time with Southern Africa.
A recurring cast of imperialist players
A recurring cast of characters is at the centre of the bungling pandemic policies we have seen over the past two years. By September 2020, rich countries like the US, the UK, Canada, the EU and Japan had deals for more than four billion doses of experimental COVID-19 vaccines, before a single jab had been approved for use. With early access to jabs and follow-up boosters, upwards of about 60 percent of people in these countries, on average, are fully vaccinated.
Compare that to Africa, where 7 percent of the continent’s 1.2 billion people are fully vaccinated, mostly in South Africa. The whole African continent is now running short of 470 million COVID-19 vaccine doses this year, while rich countries hoard the vaccine supplies.
After buying up the majority of doses, the rich countries then came back to jump the queue in buying more doses before poor countries could. This was to the immediate benefit of the Big Pharma profiteers, who have made tens of billions in profit out of these contracts.
By upholding the intellectual property rights of these pirates, the imperialist countries also refuse to allow poorer countries to manufacture their own vaccines. Instead, South Africa is manufacturing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the European market, while most of Africa is suffering crippling shortages.
It is patently clear that the reactionary governments of the imperialist countries, and the Big Pharma capitalist interests they preserve, are the major obstacle in the fight against the pandemic: not Southern Africa.
The Covax fraud
The Covax facility was set up as a means to provide poor countries with equitable access to the vaccines. But today, according to the World Trade Organisation, 60 percent of its available COVID-19 vaccine doses have been procured by just five countries, and a third remain in stockpiles.
These rich countries delayed donations and jumped the queue, demanding pharmaceutical companies fill their orders before supplying Covax, according to managing director Aurélia Nguyen.
The international financing and pooled procurement mechanism has twice had to reduce projections of available doses for poor countries in the past year. Of the promised 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to be donated to Covax by the UK for instance, as of Dec 2, only 11.5 percent have been forthcoming.
When Covax faltered, delegates from South Africa and India asked the World Trade Organisation to let them make their own vaccines. They proposed a temporary waiver of COVID-19-related intellectual property at the WTO in October 2020 that would apply to jabs, medicines and other technologies.
The UK, Canada, Japan and EU countries all opposed the waiver to protect the local pharmaceutical industries that enabled their early leads in vaccination, which in turn they hoped would give them an edge in returning to normal economic activity.
The pharmaceutical capitalists argue that, even if intellectual property rights were briefly waived, most African countries couldn’t produce COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, according to Medécins Sans Frontières, at least seven African companies have the same manufacturing capacity as Spanish firm Rovi that is expected to produce Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on contract, in just six months - with Moderna’s help.
And as stated above, Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa already manufactures the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for European countries.
For its part, Moderna recently renewed broad patents in South Africa that threaten to block the WHO-backed work of local scientists to produce a new mRNA COVID-19 vaccine for poor countries.
The Big Pharma parasites are actively and jealousy working to maintain their stranglehold over their private property, even though relinquishing it a fraction might actually serve the capitalist system as a whole better in the long run, by increasing vaccine coverage.
To fight the pandemic, fight imperialism!
For almost two years now, the world has borne witness to the greed, corruption and stupidity of the ruling class in its incompetent attempts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is a turning point in world history and will have a lasting impact on the consciousness of working class people around the world.
The recent travel bans will not keep the imperialist countries safe. In fact, they can have the effect of making all of us more vulnerable to the virus in the long run by threatening our ability to track it and prevent it. By simply banning travel of people from the region where the virus was detected without any compensation, the imperialist countries may well find that they have put others off from reporting future mutations.
Ultimately, only an international solution based on genuine mutual cooperation could deal effectively with this threat. Until the virus is eliminated everywhere, the pandemic is not over. The bourgeois have utterly failed to heed this reality, and instead prioritised their respective narrow interests.
What all of this reveals is what Marxists have been saying all along: the two great obstacles standing in the way of human progress are, on the one hand, private ownership of the means of production, and on the other hand, the nation state. A successful fight against the pandemic cannot be separated from the fight against the diseased capitalist system.