Omicron Symptoms Include African Generalizations

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People lineup to get tested for Covid at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
People lineup to get tested for Covid at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.Credit: Jerome Delay,AP
Lynn Schler

The worldwide struggle against the coronavirus pandemic over the last two years has provided endless opportunities to see how public health policies are often shaped by politics and ideology more than science. As scientific evidence is manipulated, distorted, or totally ignored, efforts to respond to the pandemic effectively have been compromised.

But even in an era when we have become accustomed to the political agendas, biases, prejudices and even strange ideas that have shaped government responses to the pandemic, the decision of the Israeli government to declare the entire continent of Africa as “red” following the discovery of the new variant in South Africa stands out for its exceptionalism.

Reports from recent days reveal significant alarm about the new variant discovered in South Africa and already spreading beyond its borders. This new strain, whose confirmed cases are still mostly concentrated in one province surrounding Johannesburg, is a heavily mutated version of the original virus and seems to be spreading at a much higher rate. Scientists are concerned that the variant will be resistant to vaccines, and it is unclear if it causes more severe illness.

Acting with extreme precaution, several countries, including the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy and the Netherlands, have already moved to block travel from South Africa and its neighbors. Hoping to stall until more research is conducted, travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi is banned. Yet, Israel, in a move not seen anywhere else in the world, has blocked all travel from almost the entire continent of Africa. How can we explain Israel’s “unusual” response?

Maybe Naftali Bennett does not know that the African continent is three times the size of Europe? Dakar, Senegal, on the coast of West Africa, for example, is more than 10,000 kilometers away from Cape Town. By way of comparison, imagine if a variant discovered in Italy would lead Israeli public health officials to ban travel to Israel from Thailand, which is 9,400 kilometers away from Italy?

A person queues to be tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday.Credit: Jerome Delay,AP

It is quite possible that the Israeli ban on travel from Senegal following the discovery of the South African variant is based on a faulty understanding of African geography. But we really cannot blame Israeli officials for not knowing how large Africa is, as few students will finish 12 years of formal education in Israel with any idea about the geography of Africa. (They also will have no knowledge of its history, politics, cultures and societies).

In the place of accurate knowledge of the continent, the decision to ban travel to and from Africa is based on knowledge of a different sort circulating in Israel – faulty perceptions and biases regarding Africa and Africans. The declaration of an entire continent as “red” reflects a mix of racism, contempt and indifference. Africa is largely regarded as a giant mass of poor and undeveloped countries that are indistinguishable from each other, but that share the same dysfunctional governments and failed systems that pose a danger to world health.

Practically, there are few downsides for the Israeli government in banning the entire continent, as the economic interests at stake are negligible and the flow of tourists is insignificant. The sad truth is, who really cares if the movement of people between Israel and Africa is banned for the time being, except for perhaps a few diehard ideologues saving the continent through volunteering in local orphanages? The backpackers can always go to South America.

Politics are indeed involved. Interestingly, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan have all been excluded from the ban. Surely the pandemic does not stop at the border between Sudan and South Sudan, and yet Sudan has been able to preserve its “orange” coronavirus status. Most likely, Israel does not want to rock the boat with its new friend acquired through the Abraham Accords.

It would likewise be inconvenient to declare Morocco a red country so soon after Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s historic trip there. In safeguarding Egypt’s orange status, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz might have had his political base in mind, since a ban on trips to Sinai would certainly enrage many Meretz voters on the eve of Hanukkah. This is despite the fact that the one case of the variant discovered in Belgium in fact came from a passenger arriving from Egypt.

The Israeli government’s decision reflects shortsighted indifference towards Africa that is a dangerous precedent for maintaining relations based on mutual respect. But the declaration of all of Africa as red is not only problematic for relations between Israel and African countries. The ease with which Israeli declared an entire continent red, despite lacking accurate data or firm scientific evidence to support such a move, must lead us to question the entire decision-making process behind the pandemic response. As citizens lose faith in the integrity of this process, the ability of the government to rally the population around its pandemic response is severely compromised.

Prof. Schler is the head of the Africa Studies program and director of the Tamar Golan Africa Centre at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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