Warning: images with racist or offensive content. It was by the end of 2019 that international news agencies started to report a mysterious viral illness that had been spreading in the Wuhan province of China. Although China wasn't very open to the details or severity of the spread, the fast growth of the virus spoke for itself and didn't take long for it to be a problem for the rest of the world. Later, we named it COVID-19, which brought even the best of our health systems to a standstill. Then there was the vaccine race. Scientific communities in different parts of the world competed to create vaccines for the virus, and we did have many of them. However, the virus persisted in its evolution, rendering it difficult to maintain vaccine effectiveness. Overcoming logistical hurdles to ensure widespread vaccine distribution, coupled with vaccine hesitancy, presented significant challenges in the global battle against the virus. Then came Omicron, from the Cape of Good Hope.
The Omicron variant started to take center stage in November 2021 in Pretoria, South Africa, when the Lancet Laboratory started to observe the recurrence of an unusual mutation in the samples being tested for COVID-19. Later, the same mutation was reported at labs in other parts of South Africa. The region also observed a sudden spike in infections, with cases increasing to 16 percent in less than a week. While the details of the new variant's origin and patient zero were unclear, this new mutation of the COVID-19 virus had been labeled the 'South African Variant' before getting named Omicron.
Travel Apartheid and the Media Bias
Low vaccination rates in the African subcontinent were an element of concern in the situation. Experts feared a fast spread, which was justifiable considering the initial vagueness regarding the severity and mortality rate of the mutation. But the stigmatization and anti-African sentiment that followed were unacceptable. The world downplayed the efficiency of the country's health infrastructure that sequenced a SARS variant in its early stages of spread. Some nations imposed travel bans and rules on African citizens that were unusual, even for that time. The Canadian government took the travel restrictions a tad higher by not just banning foreign travelers from Botswana, Egypt, eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from entering Canada but also mandating Canadian citizens who visited these nations to present a negative COVID molecular test obtained from a 'third country'; thereby understating even the ability of these countries to carry out a valid PCR test. Later, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aptly called these restrictions 'travel apartheid' and criticized this isolation of a country or region as deeply unfair and punitive. While travel bans were crippling the economic recovery of African nations affected by the pandemic, media houses from around the globe had their share of discriminatory attacks in the form of racist headlines and cartoons. The November 28, 2021 edition of the German newspaper Die Rheinpfalz's front page headline read "The virus from Africa is with us" with an image of two African natives. A week later, the Bangkok post titled an article "Govt hunts for African visitors", which they later changed and apologized for the poor choice of the word 'hunts'. The cartoon published in the Spanish newspaper La Tribuna de Albacete crossed all limits of decency by portraying the Omicron variant as brown-skinned characters crowded aboard a vessel stamped with the South African flag and approaching what appears to be European territory.
Omicron: Mother Nature's Vaccine?
While the world's nations were battling the hectic task of getting their citizens vaccinated, it seems like Mother Nature was also contributing. Omicron's distinct traits have stirred discussions about its vaccine-like qualities. The variant is characterized by efficient spread, generally milder disease than previous variants, low hospitalization rates, and potentially strong protection against other variants like Delta. These properties have led some to speculate whether Omicron functioned as a natural vaccine, boosting herd immunity and influencing the pandemic's trajectory. Unlike traditional vaccines, which introduce specific viral components to the immune system, Omicron’s widespread transmission and milder infections may inadvertently provide similar immune training. At the same time, it is critical to note that natural infection carries risks as it lacks the controlled safety of normal vaccines. While the long-term consequences of Omicron remain unclear, the noticeable decrease in COVID-19 cases following its emergence has cast South Africa as 'the Cape of Good Hope' in the pandemic narrative.