“Scientists fear the escape mutant in coronavirus variant from South Africa.”
If I had stumbled across this CNN headline a year ago, I would have assumed that I was in the middle of a bizarre dream – but just 12 months later and the reality of our strange new world means that that I barely pause as I scroll through another dozen stories with similarly apocalyptic titles.
But there is something about this rhetoric that just doesn’t sit well.
Beyond the obvious damage being done from a reputational perspective, which all of us in the tourism industry are having sleepless nights over, there’s another aspect to this widespread discourse that the media seem all too eager to propagate.
It is pandering to a stereotype where everything from Africa must be more deadly, more threatening and more, dare I say it, virulent. This, despite many Western countries having numbers that far exceed our own both in terms of total cases per segment of the population, and deaths.
The great irony in all of this is that it is South Africa’s scientific prowess that has earned us the undesirable prestige of a virus strain to call our own. As pointed out in another CNN article, if it weren’t for South Africa’s very skilful and quick-to-act genomic sequencers, we would probably be none the wiser and avoided the reputational damage that will take much time and great effort to shake off.
It reminds me of the heydays of 2014 – when Ebola hysteria gripped so many of our key tourism source markets – and the stigmatisation of Africa was in full swing. During those confusing months, we were left mystified as East and Southern Africa were bundled together with the epicentres of the outbreak in parts of West Africa, with thousands cancelling and postponing travel plans.
While I understand that we face a completely different set of risks and challenges now, I am struck by how quickly the international press can fall into step with the all-too-common Afrophobic narrative, once again reinforcing perspectives of the ‘Dark Continent’ where viruses run wild and mutate at a pace unimaginable in more developed parts of the world.
I wonder if one day, we will somehow manage to convince the world that this narrative is defunct. That there are new and refreshing African stories to tell.
Perhaps it may even be the story of South Africa’s incredible scientific community that rallied together and used cutting-edge technology to study the variant, thereby equip vaccine manufacturers around the world with data in order to adapt and develop effective booster jabs that went on to save millions of lives?