Once again, South Africa’s genomic sequencing ability, scientific prowess and infectious disease experience, instead of boosting our country’s reputation, is inadvertently harming our destination.
In the scramble to “be first” (which is important to scientists), South Africa has once again rushed to announce a new coronavirus variant, which appears to be more transmissible and has more mutations than previous variants. The announcement was made while fewer than 100 cases had been identified, but it immediately caused widespread panic and resulted in flight bans from several of our key source markets, including the UK.
Why the premature announcement? Why not wait until we know more, so we can avoid such knee jerk reactions and fearmongering headlines? We know very little about this variant. We don’t know to what extent vaccines are effective against it. We don’t know if this variant can outcompete the Delta variant in regions where Delta is prevalent.
And most importantly, we don’t know if this new variant will lead to more or less severe disease. My big hope is that this variant turns out to cause less severe disease and is associated with lower hospitalisation and death rates, compared to Delta.
If it causes less severe disease than Delta and is able to displace Delta ,that would perhaps be a good thing for the world. Replacing Delta with a less severe strain that causes fewer deaths and hospitalisations would be a positive evolutionary move.
Instead, the world responds with irrational fear, and imposes measures that do not work. Lockdowns and travel bans have never worked to contain the spread of variants. This is because it is never the index case that is sequenced. By the time the variant has been identified and studied, it has been circulating for days or weeks already. And by the time it is announced and borders are closed, it has already spread to many different countries. There is no doubt this variant will show up all over the world in the coming days, making travel bans entirely pointless.
This variant has been around since at least the November 12, probably long before that. If this variant is so contagious that it can displace Delta, then no lockdowns, travel bans or forced hotel quarantine measures will stop it. It will spread despite our best efforts. And if it is not able to displace Delta, then these measures are unnecessary anyway. Either way, lockdowns and travel bans are a destructive and ineffective strategy.
The first case was found in Botswana. Does that mean it originated in Botswana? Probably not. Even South Africa is not necessarily the country where this variant originated. It could’ve originated elsewhere. Statistically, it may seem surprising that a new variant is discovered in a region with such low case numbers. However, it is not surprising that a new variant like B.1.1.529 is announced first by a country with excellent and proactive genomic sequencing capabilities, like South Africa.
SA should not be penalised
South Africa should not be penalised for its genomic sequencing capabilities. South Africa's world class scientists are very experienced in managing infectious diseases, thanks to decades of battling HIV and TB. They spot the new variant early. They announce it and share their data with the world. It's entirely possible the variant originated elsewhere, and is already in circulation in many other countries, undetected. How does the UK respond? "Thank you for the data. You are now red listed!"
Why would a country search for or announce new variants going forward, if they get penalised and red listed immediately in response?
The UK has clearly given zero consideration to the massive economic and reputational damage their knee jerk reaction caused to destination SA. The tourism industry is already devastated, and just beginning to recover. Now a flood of cancellations pour in again, and a raft of scary news headlines about South Africa, right at the start of our peak season. Unless the travel ban is lifted within a few days, the peak tourist season hangs in the balance. Jobs will be lost. Cancellations cause poverty and put all our conservation efforts at risk.
Leaders need to make themselves heard
Our politicians, diplomats and industry leaders need to make themselves heard now. India’s Prime Minister Modi had harsh words for the international community when the Delta variant was still being referred to as the “Indian variant”.
It was his outrage that forced the WHO to adopt the Greek alphabet naming system for variants. And yet here we are once again seeing news headlines about a new South African variant. Destination bashing and discrimination against countries must end. Red lists and travel bans must end. They have not worked previously, and have no place in a pandemic response. The WHO’s own pandemic guidelines advise against them. Lockdowns have not worked, and South Africa cannot afford another lockdown.
If you have any influence, make your voice heard. Protest loudly against the red listing of Southern Africa as a destination. Help save our tourism industry.