Omicron: Throwing the Baby with The Bath Water - By: Fatima DAMAGUM | Dailytrust

Omicron: Throwing the Baby with The Bath Water

Imagine you are living in an apartment building or estate with several other people of different ethnic groups, race and religion. You install fancy smoke detectors in your house because safety is a priority for you. One night, the alarm starts blaring and you rush out, only to see smoke coming from your neighbour’s house, but the family is blissfully asleep, unaware. You bang on his door and alert the security until the whole neighbourhood is awake. They are angry at you for waking them from their slumber and so they tell you to go back to your house and stay there. The next day, the estate members hold a meeting and decided that no-one should interact or have contact with you. You are the weirdo with the fancy smoke alarm.

That is the story of South Africa (SA) and Omicron. SA is officially the neighbour with the ‘I-too-know-pass-my neighbour’ attitude. 

On the 24th of November, SA reported that they had discovered a new strain of the COVID virus. The first confirmed infection of Omicron was reported in Botswana around 11th November but was later reported in South Africa. Scientists in SA who were sequencing the genome and identifying the mutations chanced upon the variation and shared it with others. This does not mean the variant “originated” in Botswana or South Africa. The individual nationalities are unknown. New findings even show the Omicron variant was spreading in the Netherlands before the first case was identified in South Africa. Cases of the new variant are also being identified in other countries such as the U.K, Canada, Israel and China, but only because of the variant’s genome the South African scientist first identified.

Yet, instead of South African scientists to be given a standing ovation or at the very least, a round of applause, the media pounced on them and came up with sensational headlines like: ‘New Strain of COVID discovered in South Africa’ or ‘All you need to know about the South African Variant’. Suddenly the variant belongs to SA. When the Delta variant broke out in California, nobody called it ‘California’s Variant’.

And before you can say ‘Davido’s millions’, countries around the world are currently racing to introduce travel bans and restrictions on Southern African countries in an effort to contain Omicron’s spread. Like they say: No good deed goes unpunished.

However, these restrictions are erupting against a background of vaccine inequity, racism and deliberate mis-information. The former WHO chief Tedros drew the world’s attention to the importance of global vaccine sharing: “The Omicron variant reflects the threat of prolonged vaccine injustice. The longer we take to deliver vaccine equity the more we allow the COVID-19 virus to circulate, mutate and become potentially more dangerous” 

The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his speech last Sunday. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”

This knee-jerk reaction to SA by the west has brought about many conspiracy theories and has given rise to many pertinent conversations that we should be having about racism in global health. However, today is not the day. Today, I want to focus on how deadly misinformation is.

The way media reports variant detection reveals how little we understand coronavirus sequencing. The misnomer in naming variants has a longstanding history. Think of the 1918 pandemic, which came to be known as the “Spanish flu” in public memory even though the exact origin of the virus remains unknown. If anything, the first confirmed case was in the United States. Some say that “because wartime censors minimized reports of the illness while the Spanish press did not,” the misconception prevailed.

There’s a huge damage this media misrepresentation can do. For one, calling Omicron the “South African variant” may perpetuate a cycle of racism and xenophobia. Just like the world called the first one the “Chinese variant” which led to a rise in crimes against Asians throughout the world. A friend of mine narrated how someone spat at her on the streets of New York just because she ‘looked Chinese’. She is from the Philippines.  Already, people are searching for the “South African variant” on Google. Whereas other countries where the variant is detected, such as the U.K., Canada, and Germany do not appear to be facing targeted travel bans further buttressing the racist discrimination theory.

Do we remember the days of Ebola in 2014? I recall being in Ibadan when my sister (whom I had entrusted with the care of my children) called to tell me that she had given my son the ‘salt and water Ebola bath’. Oblivious to my outrage she further enquired (and this was the reason for her call) ‘was it ok to give my two-year-old daughter as well? Wasn’t she a bit to young?’ I nearly popped a vein in anger.

That year, a lot of people had salt and water baths. The rate at which that unfortunate bit of mis-information spread is beyond human comprehension. Same with COVID. Last year, people were drinking detergents and alcohol to prevent themselves from ‘catching covid’. Others were doing daily steam inhalation while another faction bought all the quinine off the shelves of pharmacies worldwide. 

When the vaccine came, another round of mis-information flooded the globe. In America, some companies created a ‘herbal supplement’ that was said to prevent against COVID and safer than the actual vaccine. People started getting sicker from consuming toxic plants they did not know. The internet was awash with all manner of mis-information and people who were already panicked consumed them all.

This is what inherently scares me. That at the end, it may not be Ebola, Delta or Omicron that kills us all. It will be mis-information. This digital age with its fake news, sensational journalism and twisting the news to perpetuate racist, political and nihilistic views. 

That, is what will consume us all.

Until then, stay safe.

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