U.S. travel restrictions in Africa reflects history of colonialism

OPINION: Even as South Africa leads in the scientific war against COVID and developing vaccines, it is a reflexive response for the U.S. and other White-dominated countries to ban African nations in the face of disease.

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In response to the discovery of the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus by South African scientists, the U.S. has restricted travel from eight southern African nations. This punishment of an African country for identifying the variant, rather than praising it for its contributions to medicine, science and public health, is emblematic of a long history of colonialism on the continent. We should be outraged, yet sadly not surprised about this.

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A member of the crowd flies the flag of South Africa on day two of the Dubai Rugby Sevens (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Although the omicron variant — which could outcompete the Delta variant — was first identified in South Africa, it did not first appear there. Rather, omicron was present in the Netherlands a week before South Africa reported the new variant to the World Health Association, according to a Dutch health agency.

The South African government and the World Health Organization have called on countries to lift the ban on southern African nations. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said his country is being punished, and offered that testing travelers rather than “imposing bans unscientifically and indiscriminately” is how to contain a pandemic.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who added the travel restrictions “are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.”

President of South Africa Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is talking to media at the end of an EU – South-Africa Summit meeting on climate change, migration to trade and security, in the Europa, the EU Council headquarter on November 15, 2018. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.

Even as South Africa leads the world in the scientific war against COVID and developing vaccines to battle the virus, it is a reflexive response for America and other White-dominated countries to ban African nations in the face of disease. After all, in the minds of some, Africa and the Global South are associated with filth and pestilence. Viruses such as AIDS and Ebola were assigned an African identity. 

Trump referred to the “sh*thole countries” in Africa and the Caribbean — whose people, unlike Norwegians, he believed America does not want to come here. And he and other White nationalists called COVID-19 the “China Virus,” “Kung Flu” and “Wuhan Virus,” as if to racialize the disease and blame it on the savages, the nefarious, so-called alien races. In other words, bad diseases, bad people, keep both out.

African civilizations had mastered mathematics and science long before Europe, and yet it is hard for some people to fathom that an African nation would lead in pandemic research and discover a COVID variant. These people don’t even know what African cities look like. While the Europeans deliberately wiped out Indigenous people with infectious diseases such as smallpox just as surely as if they were firing their guns, it is more convenient to characterize more melanated folks as contaminated with disease — even as people of a darker hue were raped by White people under slavery and colonial times, and performed the White man’s house cleaning and child rearing.  

The idea behind colonization is to rape and pillage a people, extract their resources — human and natural — and offer nothing in return but more rape, pillaging, exploitation and punishment.

A march for independence from Europe and economic autonomy of African states Protests against the CFA the French currency imposed by France on the former French colonies in Africa to obtain economic independence from France and gain a role in the world economy. (Photo by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

That colonial exploitation continues today with the inequities in the global distribution of coronavirus vaccines, creating a COVID colonialism. Vaccine nationalism is worsening the existing state of global affairs. While Africa contributed to COVID trials, it has not benefited from the vaccines. Further, as the so-called West has hoarded vaccine doses and fully vaccinated 66% of its people with 146 doses per 100 people, only 2.5% of those living in low-income nations are vaccinated, with only seven doses per 100 people. And in Africa, less than 10% of adults have been fully vaccinated. And as 70% of Americans are fully vaccinated and are now rushing for their booster shots, few Africans have received their first dose.

Oxfam America called omicron a wakeup call to vaccinate the world quickly, lest COVID continue to threaten us all.

“Since the start of the pandemic, developing countries – led by South Africa – have pleaded for the ability to manufacture their own vaccines for their own citizens. Fueled by racism, neo colonialism, me-first hoarding, and plain old greed, rich countries have refused,” said Robbie Silverman, Oxfam America’s Senior Manager of Private Sector Advocacy. Silverman noted that rather than act to protect everyone, our political leaders have protected the profits of Big Pharma. “Our leaders’ failure to help bring the vaccines to everyone, everywhere will keep us on a cruel and never-ending cycle of illness, death, and economic suffering,” Silverman added. 

This is why the omicron African travel ban smacks of a history of colonialism, because it is present-day Corona colonialism.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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