COVID-19 Omicron variant and its needless controversies, By Isaac N. Obasi




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This column has in the past observed that COVID-19 pandemic is a very controversial and divisive phenomenon. As the world struggles to combat its devastating effects, it continues to unleash its unwholesome characteristic even with the emergence of new variants. Indeed, COVID-19 pandemic generates controversial outcomes and not only creates divisions across (between, and among) countries, it also regrettably creates serious conflicts between governments and their citizens in many countries. 

Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, controversies emerged between China (origin of the virus) and other countries particularly (the United States of America under President Donald Trump). Following this was the controversial imposition of travel restrictions across the world and shortly after, some developed countries imposed discriminatory safety protocols against citizens of some other countries particularly the developing ones. The aviation and tourism industries of many of these affected countries suffered serious damage. 

The emergence of different variants of the virus brought another controversy surrounding the profiling of it by the country of origin. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its wisdom quickly resolved this by naming variants by Greek Alphabets. This quick intervention saved the world from needless controversy of profiling countries and diverting attention from confronting the common enemy (the pandemic). 

Yet after this, controversies raged within countries and in this case between governments and their citizens. The citizens were vociferously protesting against their governments over safety issues of wearing face masks and obeying other safety protocols. The discovery and eventual arrival of vaccines as antidotes against the coronavirus generated yet another controversy and further divided governments and their citizens. The adoption and implementation of a vaccine mandate policy by many countries became a very controversial and divisive issue across the world. This controversy has continued to rage within countries across the globe. 

In Nigeria, for example, the Federal Government policy on ‘no vaccination, no entry into its offices’, took effect from 1 December 2021. The implementation of this vaccine mandate policy on 1st of December appeared to have taken many public servants by surprise. Although the government gave its unvaccinated workers enough time to get vaccinated before the expiration of the deadline, a good number of them did not show evidence of being vaccinated when they reported for work on December 1, thereby denying themselves from entry into their offices.    

Going back to the controversies at the international level, the issue of equitable distribution of vaccines emerged and became a very big issue. The controversy here was (and still is) between developed and developing countries over vaccine nationalism or hoarding (by developed countries) and vaccination equity being advocated by developing countries. Like some other earlier controversies, this particular one is still presently raging as not a few vaccine equity advocates have argued that the lack of vaccine equity has been responsible for the emergence of new variants like the Omicron variant first dictated last month. 

According to vaccine equity advocates, no country is safe until everyone in the world is vaccinated. Although their argument is plausible, the fact is that governments of developing countries should wake up from their slumber and begin to invest in vaccine production rather than lazily calling for vaccine equity as if it is an entitlement or a right. They forget that all reasonable governments across the world take care of the health needs of their own citizens first before extending their generosity to citizens of other countries, for as the saying goes, charity begins at home.

The emergence of Omicron variant in November 2021 which was said to have originated in South Africa has accentuated the controversies surrounding COVID-19 pandemic. This has also brought back in a very controversial manner the economic damage caused to the aviation and tourism industries in a country like South Africa for instance. Some developed countries wasted no time in imposing travel restrictions against selected Southern African countries of which South Africa was the main target and big economic loser. The pattern of travel restrictions and the hasty manner of their imposition re-enkindled the ever present and hidden racial divisions among developed and developed countries. 

Some analysts particularly in developing countries have argued that racism was at play as there was no plausible explanation to convince anyone why the United Kingdom for example would ban flights from South Africa and not do the same to her European neighbours where the same Omicron variant had already been dictated. However, some other analysts who did not want to stretch the racial argument had rather argued that political exigency, expediency or survival constituted the major drivers of such hasty decisions to impose travel restriction against South Africa and her neighbours. They argued that South Africa should be commended rather than punished for identifying the Omicron variant classified as ‘Variant of Concern’ (increased risk of infection or simply dangerous) by the WHO.           

The President of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, had decried the ban as discriminatory and very damaging to the economy of South Africa. He, therefore, called for the lifting of the ban. The government of Nigeria also described the travel ban against South Africa as discriminatory measures taken by the Western countries. Nigeria went ahead to host Mr. Ramaphosa on a State visit on Wednesday December 1, 2021 at a time when the controversies surrounding the Omicron ‘Variant of Concern’ were still raging across the world. The visit also coincided with the discovery of the Omicron variant in Nigeria among people who had recently travelled to South Africa. 

The Nigerian government by its action had elevated political interest above public health interest. This column considers Nigeria’s policy response to the controversy surrounding the Omicron variant, as an inappropriate show of political solidarity to a fellow African country, forgetting that its own healthcare system is very weak or indeed fragile. Let us pray that Nigeria is spared from harvesting the unpleasant consequences of the visit of the South African President at a period when a ‘Variant of Concern’ dictated in his country, was spreading across the world. The WHO said this variant has been dictated in 24 countries including the United States as of Wednesday 2 December 2021. Nigeria’s policy response to such variant of concern should be one of measured and cautious approach. 

•Prof. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].