Pretoria - The events of November 25, 2021, will undoubtedly go down in history as an example of how countries should not communicate sensitive information, the impact of which could adversely affect markets, impact economies, marginalise developing countries, and send shock waves in key sectors such as tourism.
This occurred after scientists in South Africa identified a new Covid-19 variant and instantaneously announced this to the world.
As to whether there were coherent consultations between the scientific community and South Africa’s key clusters of government, namely the National Treasury, Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, Department of Tourism, or indeed the National Coronavirus Command Council which is led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, remains a mystery.
Upon these revelations, facts began to emerge, but numerous countries engaged the panic button by placing southern African countries on their red travel lists, led by the UK which was first to close its borders to anyone from southern Africa, except British citizens.
These growing travel bans on southern African countries on the basis that our scientists detected Omicron, a Covid-19 variant that has a high number of mutations, were unwarranted and insensitive to the known challenges faced by developing countries.
A day later, several cases were identified in Europe – two in the UK, two in Germany, one in Belgium and another in Italy, while a suspected case was found in the Czech Republic.
The US, Canada, the UK and the overall EU have all restricted travel from southern Africa amid haphazard concerns over the new variant. Ironically, these countries imposed these travel bans despite a firm confirmation by the World Health Organization (WHO) to the effect that very little was known about Omicron at the time.
To place global markets at such risk on the basis of unknown factors meant these Western countries were willing to marginalise key African states and suppress their economies without any scientific proof.
Today, we know that from South African scientists, particularly Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chairperson of the South African Medical Association who first spotted the Covid-19 Omicron variant, that symptoms seem “mild”. Coetzee told the BBC in an interview that the patients she had seen had “extremely mild symptoms”.
The UK, which is one of the front-runners using the technology, is unable to screen every positive Covid-19 case to determine which variant is the cause.
We also know for a fact that the Omicron variant, which is now circulating in western Europe, was first detected in the Netherlands as early as November 19, a few days before South African scientists blew the whistle.
According to the National Institute for Public Health, the variant was detected in two test samples taken on November 19 and November 23 in the Netherlands.
The discovery showcases South Africa’s strong reputation in scientific and epidemiological excellence, and we deserve to be praised for detecting Omicron instead of being penalised with travel bans by our global counterparts.
South Africa has demonstrated its efficiency and preparedness through its sophisticated scientific surveillance systems that enabled it to detect the emerging variant so the global community can respond with measures that minimise the risk of transmissions.
To date, 41% of South Africa’s adult population have received at least one vaccine dose, 35.6% are fully vaccinated, and 57% of people 60 years and older are fully vaccinated. Although not at ideal levels, the country is making excellent progress in its efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19, despite global challenges faced by developing countries such as vaccine hoarding.
Although some economists predict that the global economy will weather the storm with ease, given that global economies have recovered gradually with each Covid-19 wave, the impact on southern African countries will be devastating. Millions worth of value in travel and tourism has been washed away, compounded by negative reputational damage for these affected countries.
That said, South Africa’s economy is showing signs of recovery, recording its fourth consecutive quarterly growth of 1.2% in the second quarter of 2021 (April to June).
This variant, albeit handled irresponsibly by the West, presents an opportunity for African leaders to shift the dial and set a new discourse regarding the pandemic in terms of transparency and equitable access to vaccines by the AU’s 54 member states. It is time for Africa to take a position – a firm one for that matter. The begging bowl strategy is no longer applicable and must be stopped.
Importantly, the South African scientific community should take a considered approach in terms of strategic communication planning before making announcements that could have global economic implications.
Given that a lot remains unknown about Omicron, it would make sense to craft a clear communication and messaging strategy outlining the facts, with contributions from all clusters of our already constrained economy. There should be a protocol that outlines who gets to say what, to whom, where, when and how.
Although the WHO has commended our scientists for reporting the variant speedily and with the utmost transparency, a better co-ordinated communication drive should have been implemented, supported by the identification of key strategic issues that would affect the country, the continent and global economies.
To this end the country, through a public-private sector partnership, should have devised scenarios about this discovery and engaged key stakeholders behind the sciences, therefore empowering the president and his National Command Council with communication tools to manage the crisis proactively.
What was more depressing was Africa’s lack of responsiveness in a coordinated fashion. By the time the SADC responded, Europe had already taken key decisions to isolate southern African countries. In addition, Rwanda’s decision to impose a travel ban on inbound and outbound flights to southern African countries was also strange in the context of the AU’s geopolitical and bilateral relations landscape.
President Ramaphosa should be applauded for swiftly sending a clear message to the world indicating that the travel bans imposed after the discovery of the Omicron variant were not based on scientific fact. His assertion that African countries that imposed travel bans should “not behave like the continent’s former colonisers”, is warranted.
“I am concerned. Out of due respect to them, they have their own reasons. We would like to have a discussion with them in a way we prefer that they do not react like our former colonisers who are very quick to close Africa down,” he said.
Africa’s future, therefore, is highly dependent on a shift in leadership dialogue from a begging bowl syndrome towards an active player in global socioeconomic issues.
The discovery of Omicron is a lost opportunity for a co-ordinated communication and brand positioning campaign of Africa’s sophisticated expertise in managing and defeating complex diseases and other health-care challenges.
It is not too late for Africa to start.
* Matseba is managing director of Reputation 1st Group and former President of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa.