Justice Malala is an award-winning journalist, television host, political commentator and newspaper columnist. Malala writes regular weekly columns for The Times, the Financial Mail, a monthly column for Destiny Man, and columns for The Guardian.
As the world enters its third year of living with Covid-19, nothing illustrates the reality that Africa needs to be able to live with disruption as clearly as the events that began to unfold last October. For many African observers at the time, it was tempting to start popping the champagne. The good news was rolling in for the continent. Brutal Covid-19 travel restrictions imposed on African travelers by western countries were being lifted. The World Bank projected economic expansion of 3.3% in 2021 — a full percentage point above its April forecast. The IMF said Sub-Saharan Africa was set for growth of 3.7% in 2021 and 3.8% in 2022. Then, on 26 November 2021, the WHO designated the B.1.1.529 Covid variant — first sequenced by South African scientists — as a variant of concern. They named it Omicron.
Within hours, the UK and dozens of other Western nations had slapped at least eight African countries with travel bans or onerous quarantine rules. Within 72 hours of the Omicron announcement, nearly 70 countries had imposed restrictions on travelers from southern African nations. In that 48-hour period, a survey of more than 600 travel industry businesses revealed that the South African tourism and hospitality sector alone had lost ZAR 1 billion in canceled bookings.
These travel restrictions — imposed despite evidence that Omicron was in Europe, Hong Kong, and the USA long before the travel bans on southern Africa — were a stunning reversal of fortunes for a continent which, after two years of devastating curtailment of mobility, had begun to welcome a full return to commerce and travel. South African travelers had been the most restricted in the world after the detection of the Beta variant in December 2020. The country was on the UK’s red list for 10 months.
These developments underline that the continent will remain at the mercy of Covid-19 disruption for a significant amount of time. Low vaccination rates put the continent at high risk of mutations, variants, and new waves of infection. Only about 102 million Africans (7.5% of the continent’s population) were fully vaccinated as of December 2021, compared to vaccination rates of 70% in the UK and 60% in the USA.
Despite these setbacks, Africa is opening up. Using studies from South Africa and elsewhere, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said in early January 2022 that severe lockdowns were no longer the best way to contain Covid-19. Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said the continent would instead “use public health and social measures more carefully and in a balanced way as the vaccination increases”.
Nkengasong, like the USA’s Dr. Anthony Fauci and others, now believes that Covid-19 will likely become endemic (namely, always be present in the population to some degree, such as the flu) and will need management rather than containment.
This, coupled with the lifting of travel restrictions on African travelers by western nations, bodes well for the re-opening of economies.
Yet it would be naïve to conclude that recovery of African mobility will be in the form of a triumphant V-shape, in which we leave the devastation of the Covid pandemic behind once and for all. We are set for a W-shaped recovery characterized by booms and busts, closures and re-openings. Even in those countries — such as Rwanda and South Africa — where vaccination rates have been highest (around 30% in each) setbacks such as the travel restrictions imposed by the UK after Omicron have the potential to mute any recovery in mobility and inward tourism.
There is a solution. The only way to prevent a repeat of the Omicron disaster is to act in solidarity and share vaccines through a coordinated global plan. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says, “There will be a next one (another variant).” If there is no global plan to ramp up the sharing of vaccines, then Africa and the world will be in exactly the same position a year from now.