08 Dec South Africa at the Forefront of Medical Research – Stand Back World!
South Africa at the Forefront of Medical Research – Stand Back World!
You know you’re living in interesting times when Piers Morgan comes to the defence of South Africa.
Morgan is known for his scathing criticism of anything which opposes his views, which are an odd mix of eclectic, conservative and…according to some critics… the point of view of a token white, male, British aristocrat.
Nevertheless, Morgan’s commentary on Omicron which he voiced on Twitter is a lesson for South Africans and Africans living across the globe.
Credit where credit is due
While Rand Rescue has also shared our fair share of criticism aimed at the politicians, corrupt officials, failing SOEs and general lack of accountability among South Africa’s administrative bodies and regulators – we’ve also praised those South Africans who are making a difference, excelling in their respective fields and setting trends worldwide.
In his latest address to South Africans, president Ramaphosa surprised many by not announcing another hard lockdown. This was a surprise given the identification of the Omicron variant and the world’s response to South Africa identifying the variant.
The era of knee-jerk hypocrisy
While South African scientists have identified and alerted the globe about the existence of this new variant, it seems this good deed – as the saying goes – could not go unpunished.
Although the variant is not widespread in South Africa, and has been spotted in other regions like Botswana, Belgium, Israel, and Hong Kong, South Africa and its neighbouring countries were immediately hit with a travel ban. In fact, after South Africa identifying the new B.1.1.529 variant by its 32 spike protein mutations (delta has two, and beta has three) – among other things – 20 nations declared that the variant had already been in their regions before this announcement – and these mutations were in the regions before any South Africans traveled there.
The ignorant response also triggered a mass Rand sell-off as investors threw South African markets under the bus and left thousands of travellers stranded at airports as their travel plans were immediately derailed.
While South Africa is currently ranked 89th in the world for new Covid cases, restrictions were immediately imposed by:
As of 1 December 2021, a total of 87 restrictions have been placed on South Africa across the world. See the restrictions here.
The irony is lost on no one, given the poor control of infection suffered by many of these nations and their own lack of scientific prowess to identify Covid variants.
Amid all this turmoil, South Africans are suffering the additional onslaught of deja vu: we were also the first nation to identify the Beta variant of the virus.
The lethargic lag of the west…
While Africa may be lambasted for many things, and we may pile heaps of worthy criticism on certain political, governance or human rights blunders – Africa’s response to Covid has been rather remarkable compared to most ‘western’ nations.
‘Western’ is, of course, a bit of a misnomer as it generally refers to economically and politically progressive and powerful nations who generally lean towards capitalism. There are many countries in all four hemispheres who fall into this category.
The world has always scoffed at African ‘progress’ and there seems to be a lingering sense of superiority which is to blame for this knee-jerk response.
Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, co-chairperson of the African Union’s African Vaccine Delivery Alliance piled scathing criticism on the shoulders of above-mentioned nations in an interview with BBC.
She notes that although epidemiologists worldwide have anticipated a new Covid-19 crisis and a next wave, the fact that such catalysts are identified by African nations triggers political bans which have nothing to do with science. She further noted how different matters will have been had the Covid crisis originated in Africa and not in China. The world outside Africa seems all too willing to immediately discard the continent at anything which feeds their prejudice.
When we look at things clearly, we see that Africa is being rebuked for not only leading the world in scientific research, but being transparent.
Why is South Africa’s medical research advanced?
Though most developed nations find it strange that South Africa would be at the forefront of epidemiological research, it’s actually quite logical. With pervasive long-term epidemics like HIV, TB and ebola throughout the region, our testing, treatment and observation sites and resources have been up and running for decades.
The tools, methodologies and resources pooled into HIV and TB research is of particular interest here. Although South Africa has lost our no.1 spots for HIV and TB infections (at no.4 and no.8 respectively), these are some of the most prevalent issues in our society and research to the effect is extensive.
Decades of testing, studying and treating these health crises have left us far more prepared for such crises. South Africa has some of the most advanced research facilities dedicated to communicable diseases, gene sequencing, molecular pathology, virology and epidemiology. While the rest of the world was scrambling to create therapeutic agents, South African scientists focused on obtaining our own SARS-VoV-2 laboratory isolate, which they successfully created on 1 April 2020.
Knowing how difficult it could be to treat a virus without understanding how it’s structured, how it functions and how it can mutate, we approached our research from a different angle. On creating our own laboratory isolate, labs throughout SA were provided with large amounts of virus genetic material which both served as reference material for diagnostic testing and material suitable for divergent research. The vast research into antiviral agents has also provided researchers a larger scope of testing material, as the properties, behaviours and transmission of other viruses and their response to antiviral agents could be compared to the Covid virus to identify similarities and differences as well as guide direction for further research.
Another point of irony is that South Africa did not establish these world-class research institutions on our own – the bulk of funding came from international sources and most of our institutions are affiliated with institutions in other countries. So those nations who question the validity of our research are indirectly questioning their own investments and research partnerships.
Instead of judging achievements on merit, South Africa was judged by our socio-economic stature and political dire straits. When pairing off against economic powerhouses with trillions of dollars at their disposal, and endless supply of blank checks and greater social and health equality, it’s inevitable that a country like South Africa would bear the weight of the world’s scorn.
We were better prepared, in a sense
Although the government has been criticised far and wide for measures seen as draconian – and rightfully so – we were far more diligent in seeking preventative measures, even amid other economic crises.
South Africa’s first Covid testing and treatment sites were already set up in January 2020, while the rest of the world was still sleeping.
As in other nations like the USA and UK, South Africa also has a huge cluster of non-compliant anti-vaxx and anti-mask proponents who make a lot of noise. Yet this group is not nearly equal in size as a proportion of our population as these nations. Lack of vaccination is not necessarily representative of dissent, but of practicality. Given vaccinations take quite a bit of time – especially at public hospitals and pharmacies – and individuals cannot be vaccinated without pre-registering on the EVDS system, many South Africans simply don’t have the time or resources to register or reach vaccination hubs.
In addition to anti-vaxx narratives and practical issues as mentioned above,South Africa and other African nations have had a massive backlog in acquiring vaccines. Partially due to negotiation issues with suppliers, but it mostly comes down to international sentiments towards Africa.
Vaccine makers have been largely opposed to sharing necessary patents and information which would allow African nations to create their own vaccines, and more affluent nations were quick to purchase all surplus vaccines at the expense of poorer nations.
While many countries were quick to pile criticism on the shoulders of China, North America and Europe were quick to hog test kits and vaccines. Vaccine donations were subsequently offered to Africa from these nations’ surplus supplies, but this has been slow, staggered and quite paltry.
By the time that countries like Israel had already administered more than 170 vaccines per 100 people in the country (implying multiple doses) and the USA had administered at least one dose to 55% of its population (December 2021), South Africa had administered none. Our first vaccination drive targeted healthcare workers, with around 820 000 healthcare workers vaccinated between 17 February and 17 May 2021.
The monetisation of suffering
The horrendous reaction of the world to South Africa sharing scientific knowledge is indicative of a far greater issue in society. While South Africa’s failure in addressing corruption has been a rather public topic and a noteworthy point to criticise…it seems our own failures are not necessarily as great, and our corruption not nearly a significant as elsewhere. Though, of course, the world is lax to point these things out.
It’s rather comical that certain conservative factions around the world are claiming Covid-19 measures to be indicative of a ‘communist overtaking’ is perhaps one of the most laughable points put forth.
This has reached a point of caricature, given UK prime minister Boris Johnson stating clearly that he believes the success of Covid-19 vaccines could be attributed to capitalism and greed. Though Johnson had immediately retracted his statements, his comments were confirmed by many present and leaked to the press. Downing Street has not denied the comments, merely played mum in the same way the UK has handled Prince Andrew’s involvement with sexual trafficking – by playing mum. While Johnson’s team has managed to mute British media from further reporting on the matter, the internet has a long and rigid memory – few things are indefinitely erased and muted if one knows where to look.
Johnson isn’t wrong, though. As Corporate Watch reports, total profits for BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca on vaccine sales alone (after expenses and barring other initiatives) is currently at around $18,4 billion
The Globalist notes that although the US has made approximately 3.1 trillion USD from the Covid pandemic, its market performance outside the scope of billionaire businesses has sunk to the 45th ranked economy in terms of stock market performance – based on the Standard and Poors 500 Index.
The Conversation notes that the problem with Covid risk models is that they generally either excluded economic factors or used economic income through Covid initiatives as adjustments for actual economic impact while excluding the compound impact of the pandemic across the board. The models, it seems, were entirely focused on whether the rich could remain rich and politicians could retain power with ‘minimal societal impact’ being a vague guideline for achieving such outcomes. Models weren’t aimed at mitigating widespread impact, but containing opportunistic income from the pandemic within certain groups.
Similar horrendous performance and ineptitude has been mirrored in other regions.
Credit Suisse not only lost $3 billion USD on its own, but squandered an additional $7.6 billion USD in loans to a single US-based private family fund. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that the giant bank in Zurich had fired two of its top executives and several other top players, cuts its dividends by two thirds and indicated that it will be buying back most of its shares. Its other crazed gamble was on UK-based company Greensill Capital. A company whose senior advisor is none other than former UK PM, David Cameron.
Does it come as any surprise that a purported prominent statistical body like Statista included only Asia, Europe and the USA as distinct statistical segments of its analysis on the Global economic impact of Covid? No, this is not surprising at all. Not only are the US and UK perpetually compared against whole continents, but any nations considered insignificant for statistical outcome are simply excluded. Their analyses not only excluded most of the world, but what marginal input was sought elsewhere does not support any algorithms or research inputs for any type of sound statistical comparisons. All peripheral measures are entirely focused on US-based interests.
We could go on, but the point is not to tumble down a rabbit hole, so we will stop here for a moment and get back to the primary point – accountability.
Holding the real culprits to account
If we can criticise Jacob Zuma as one for his absolute depraved plundering and financial gains through the toils of all South Africans, we can also criticise global leaders and institutions for such conduct.
An article by Nancy Leong published in the Harvard Law Review in 2013 highlighted the impact of racial capitalism. Though this may have focused on racial factors, the research and implications can be readily transposed to cultural, national and regional bias and exploitation.
In the words of Bolivian President Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, “Capitalism has transformed all areas of social life into merchandise, and health has not escaped its tentacles”. Luis Arce was referring to affluent nations using a global pandemic as a tool for economic warfare by hoarding vaccines.
Not only was Africa and other developing nations denied intellectual property rights which would allow the production of vaccines, but most of the grand promises of donations were also bluffs. Of the 1 billion vaccine donations promised by the G7 countries, only 15% of the pledges have been delivered. To make matters worse, many donations were stockpiled so long that they had expired by the time of delivery. The Corax Scheme which aimed to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, research and other gear worldwide and give developing nations access to necessary goods had essentially failed.
Affinity Analysis estimates that by the end of 2021, affluent nations will have stockpiled close to 1.2 million vaccines – 1.06 million of which were already excluded from donation and the remainder which will most probably have expired by the time they’re sent.
Amid all this, Jack Ma and Bill Gates had collectively donated more vaccines and Covid-19 supplies to Africa than any of the other nations who’d pledged to provide. Another irony – that a duo made up of a Chinese philanthropist and US philanthropist on the receiving end of most Covid criticism would be the ones most eager to help Africa, no strings attached!
Africa had also looked to India for help given the Serum Institute of India is the largest vaccine maker in the world, and yet the nation halted all exports in April 2021 to reserve production for internal use, even existing orders for the Corax Scheme. While they restarted exports again in October 2021, they’d indicated that they would focus on exports to Asia with vague intent to honour Corax agreements as well.
Hage G. Geingob, President of Namibia, calls the world’s response to Africa a ‘vaccine apartheid’.
Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Jakub Kulhánek, similarly noted that countries like the US are so focused on using their technologies as tools of surveillance, oppression and control, that they’re missing out on opportunities to become enablers of global human progress.
At the 76th session of the UN’s general assembly, the world’s persistent prejudice and restrictions against developing nations during Covid was decried by leaders and representatives of:
Celebrities, scientific communities, academic groups and laymen are all aghast at the perpetuation of African and other developing nations’ people as morally and intellectually inefficient, barbaric, unrelentingly corrupt and incapable. It’s these very notions and prejudices which cripple an Africa which has already been looted of its mineral wealth and other resources, and discarded like a worn out shoe next to the road which lead these nations to their positions of power and privilege.
While foreign nepotism is targeted by people far and wide, the powerhouses are still stuck in vague stage productions of their own ignorance. Although the nature and prevalence of Omicron had been widely confirmed and scientifically outlined, representatives like US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, seem incapable of crunching the numbers or drawing conclusions from data at hand.
Right after announcing the US commitment to South Africa and another vague commitment to distributing vaccines, Becerra, Psaki and Biden made a predictable 180 – banning South Africa from travel to the US with vague affirmations of their lack of scientific prowess through statements like ‘we’re not penalising South Africa, we’re protecting Americans’. If this were true, of course, the US will have restricted travel from nations with actual high incidences of infection.
In a study conducted on the cost of the West African Ebola outbreak, report authors Caroline Huber, Lyn Finelli and Warren Stevens coined a relevant term to describe and calculate the devastation of things to come: “the value of a statistical life”.
It is within these reaches of statistics where we see the devastating toll of human value and its disparities across borders.
South African expat and visitor scorn!
No matter your view on South Africa, Africa or developing nations, it’s still justified to rage at the inequality experienced which plagues the globe, and the scorn has been felt internationally.
So many people who had made plans to visit relatives, conduct business or simply take holidays have been ambushed by the international community; punished for a nation having more insight, capability and…honesty than other nations. Of all the ironies listed in our article, perhaps the deepest and saddest, is that a nation which is so riddled with corruption and inefficiency is being rebuked and shunned for not only being honest, but sharing information and knowledge which should not be punishable in the first place. The international South African community is heartbroken and devastated by the implications. Grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues – all unfairly shackled due to the ineptitude of decision-makers in global power.
It is, after all, one of the major push factors which drives South Africans to emigrate to other places. For those who have left or still wish to leave, it’s not the hate of a nation which drives them away; but the frustration with injustice, labelling, inefficiency, inequality, incompetence and corrupt governance which unfairly penalises ordinary people. And it is this same unfairness which has been exposed on a global scale. Many South African businesses and individuals, both locally and abroad, are calling on the global community and politicians to recompense for the losses they have saddled millions of individuals and businesses with. But South Africans, unlike many other citizens, are also well aware of the untouchable status of the elite, and how this untouchability is bolstered by power and privilege.
International visitors stuck in South Africa have been equally disgusted with the US, UK and EU blanket bans on travel, with many foreigners now relying on the goodwill of locals since their flights have been cancelled. South Africans have opened their doors to these destitute international travellers, since their own governments have essentially cast them away with the bathwater.
This unfairness is pushing South Africa’s economy further down the drain, with the tourism sector under the greatest strain it has seen in SA’s history.
South Africans understand unfairness
There is nothing wrong with living abroad, moving around or criticising leaders for their ineptitude – expats know this far too well. There is nothing wrong with criticising leaders for their handling of Covid-19, whether in prevention or the cushioning of its impact.
It is an odd experience for those who have lived abroad or intended to jump ship to wilfully come to the defence of a nation we no longer feel welcome in. But as South Africans, Africans and global vagrants it’s this beating heart of fairness and justice which will always seek a greater society and fairness for all.
It is not just or fair to deny people flow across borders based on a preschool grasp of science. This same playground bullying of economies should no longer be tolerated and although our outrage would probably not have a lasting impact, it is still warranted.
South Africa should be criticised for those things which it does wrong – the political, racial, service-delivery and socio-economic factors which drive us mad. But the same criticism is due to the purported ‘greater’ nations. And we shouldn’t be criticised for the things we get right.
The drop-off in immigration requests for places like the US and UK reflects this sentiment. Though South Africans seek better shores, they are no longer setting their sights on nations which merely perpetuate the faults of the South African governance.
In global social media groups these sentiments are echoed – international society is no longer keen to relocate to certain nations which had previously seemed progressive and attractive. Interest in relocation to the USA and UK has been limited to those who are desperate and compelled to move there, or those who are of sufficient wealth to afford subsequent relocation elsewhere.
Supporting progress across borders
While the stayers and leavers have been at each other’s throats for years – both factions further dividing a divided nation’s people, the extraordinary knock-on of the unjustified punishment of South Africa is an act of union across borders.
Not only are South Africans putting their differences aside to call a spade a spade, and telling said spades that they’re digging their own graves, but other nations, political parties, celebrities and scientific groups around the globe are banding together to tell discriminating nations that it’s enough now!
This camaraderie across borders is heartwarming and underscores a crucial fact – humans should be allowed to live anywhere, move everywhere and be treated with fairness and decency, no matter their locality. One doesn’t need to have your feet planted in the soil of a geographical zone to be part of its society, uplift its people or fight for the rights represented there. Conversely – we should be allowed to live where we want, supplant ourselves anywhere and not feel discriminated against, unsafe, caged in or rebuked.
We are part of a global community, and should act the part.
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