Omicron in southern Africa: ‘Afrophobia’, say Malawians in wake of West’s travel ban

Malawian government says it has the capacity to do genomic sequencing and had not detected the Omicron variant till now

By Jack McBrams
Published: Wednesday 08 December 2021
People line up for COVID-19 vaccinations in Blantyre, Malawi. Photo: istock

People in Malawi in southern Africa, have accused the European Union and the United States of ‘Afrophobia’ in the wake of a travel ban imposed on it and other countries in the region after the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant.

South African scientists announced the identification of Omicron November 24, 2021. Subsequently, a travel ban was imposed on Malawi as well as other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which consists of 16 countries.

Malawi, a poor, landlocked country of 19 million sandwiched between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, became the victim of the blanket ban after an Israeli travelling from the country tested positive upon arrival in Israel.

Malawi’s ministry of health, however, said there had been no communication from Israel and the country had not detected a single case of the new variant.

“Officially, we have not been communicated anything but following the report, we are following up the issue to get more details to ascertain the incident and to facilitate contact tracing,” Charles Mwansambo, Malawi’s secretary for health said in a statement.

“The Omicron variant has not been isolated so far from the samples we have collected. However, surveillance on the same has been intensified and the country will be informed accordingly on any developments,” he said.

Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said the travel ban by Europe and the US smacked of Afrophobia.

“We are all concerned about the new COVID-19 variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did. But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. COVID-19 measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia,” Chakwera said in a statement a day after the ban was announced.

Michael Jana, a Malawian who teaches politics at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa agreed with Chakwera’s statement.

He noted that the travel bans were a knee jerk reaction not based on science, against the World Health Organization (WHO) advice and bordering on colonial mentality.

“I don’t see any explanation for such an action. The COVID-19 crisis seems to have exposed colonial and xenophobic sentiments, especially against the people of the Global South,” he said.

Situation in Malawi

Malawi, like most African countries, has not yet felt the full effect of the pandemic.

The country’s health minister Khumbize Kandodo said Malawi had a robust disease surveillance system which had been built over many years on the back of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and cholera epidemics and was now being used for COVID-19.

“Malawi also has the capacity to monitor the spread of SARS-CoV-2 through routine screening in all hospitals, community facilities and points of entry,” she said.

Kandodo added that Malawi also had the capacity to study variants in circulation using its reference laboratories at the Public Health Institute of Malawi and the Malawi Liverpool Welcome Trust in Blantyre.

“At present, no unusual variant has been detected anywhere in Malawi, including the new Omicron variant,” she said.

The Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 reviewed the status of the pandemic and the adequacy of the measures that were currently in place following the emergence of the Omicron variant.

All arriving travellers of all nationalities, including Malawians, will be expected to show a valid electronic COVID-19 full vaccination certificate at points of entry.

“Arriving travellers that are not able to show an electronic certificate at the point of entry, shall be expected to access COVID-19 vaccine that will be available for free at the point of entry before being processed to enter / re-enter the country, as a preventive measure,” a November 26 statement from the ministry of health read.

So far, Malawi has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, with only 7.5 per cent of its targeted reach vaccinated. The country had hoped to vaccinate 11 million adults by the end of December.

Vaccine hesitancy has been blamed on a mixture of myths and general misinformation around COVID-19 vaccinations.

Gama Bandawe, a virologist with the Malawi University of Science and Technology, explained that that the mutation of the virus was expected.

“It was not unexpected; many of us close up could have told you what was going to happen. For example, so many unvaccinated people on the continent meant that we were going to definitely see the emergence of other variants, which will become more transmissible and perhaps more deadly as time goes by,” he said.

He added that the virus will continue to adapt to the human host.

“We are going to see a lot of variants before we hit some sort of plateau phase or there will be a variant that is just so much more efficient and that has really kind of reached the peak of what it could do. That will perhaps see a slowdown in the emergence of new variants,” he said.

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