As the Omicron variant continues to spread across the globe, Western nations have taken the decision to impose travel bans to African countries. This measure to contain the virus, is the latest -but neither the only nor the most outrageous- example of how Covid-19 responses have been instrumentalised for political purposes, write Dorothea Hilhorst and Rodrigo Mena.
This weekend, BBC News featured an interview with the co-chair of the African Union Vaccine Alliance Dr Ayoade Alakija. Visibly angry, she explains in a nutshell how it was inevitable that a variation of the Covid 19 (Omicron) would develop in Africa, and that the travel bans imposed on African countries only are more politically-motivated than scientifically-justified. Dr Alakija’s anger concerns both the lack of action beforehand and the immediate reaction when Omicron evolved, even before it has been properly established where the variation comes from and what its exact properties are. At the moment of writing this post, the travel ban is restricted to African countries, whereas the Omicron variation has already been found in several other countries too, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Israel. This ban shows how, once again, measures related to Covid-19 are not always taken based on scientific knowledge, but maybe on political agendas and strategies.
Multiple examples of the instrumentalisation of Covid-19 responses can be found in a recent article based on a research conducted by a group of ISS students on responses on Covid-19 in conflict-affected countries, including Brazil, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, India, Philippines, and Zimbabwe (see in the links blog post in the cases). The country studies found ample evidence for the claim that Covid-19 policies were often instrumentalised and subsumed to non-Covid -19 politics. The pandemic was either over-securitised (where its impacts were exaggerated), or under-securitised (where impacts were denied), and there were many examples of governments seen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to tighten their control over the population at large and political opponents in particular. In several of the countries, governments used the COVID restrictions to curb opposition or even arrest opponents on grounds that they violated these restrictions. Even though the global situation today is in many ways different from these country cases, they have in common that COVID responses are highly politicized and subject to geo-politics interests.
Another example of the instrumentalisation and injustices that Covid-19 measures may carry is found in Calais, France. The knee-jerk European reaction in response to the Omicron variation reminded us of the stories that Cambridge PhD candidate Maria Hagan heard from irregular migrants residing near Calais, in the early months of the pandemic. When the Covid-19 crisis evolved last year in 2020, authorities in Calais and other surrounding municipalities were quick to take ´protective measures´. However, it soon appeared that the measures were not meant to protect migrants from the virus, but to protect the French population from the migrants while rumours started to circulate that the latter were particularly likely to carry the virus.
In a similar twist as with today’s response to Omicron, these rumours in Calais were loosely associated with ideas of dirtiness and lack of hygiene. It was glossed over that if indeed migrants could not maintain hygienic standards, it was because of the French policies denying them shelter and showers, and leaving them to sleep in small tents that did not enable maintaining distance. At some point, migrants were not even allowed to enter grocery stores. This left them hopelessly outside, unable to buy the most basic supplies, which were indeed necessary to strengthen their bodies against the virus. As Maria Hagan concludes in a forthcoming article: “The half-hearted humanitarian response by the French state to protect the displaced at the border from pandemic […] demonstrate the state’s prioritisation of protection from the displaced above their protection from infection”.
There is a lot amiss with the reaction to ban travels from African countries. To some extent it is a case of under-securitisation, by assuming that a travel ban from Africa can keep the variation under control, although it has been found beyond the continent too. On the other hand, there seems to be over-securitisation because the strictest measures are already taken while the scientific evidence is still being collected about the level of danger the variation poses. Moreover, the travel restrictions come into play in a world where the access to and distribution of the vaccine is highly unequal.
Important then is also to ask: Would these restrictions have been imposed if the majority of the population in southern Africa countries had been vaccinated? llustrative is the map below that shows the geographical division between Europe and the global South regarding the position in relation to the waiving of patents for COVID-related medical tools. The map shows how European countries voted against vaccine patent wavers, and with it, contributed to (or are in part responsible for) the low African vaccination records, because of a lack of sharing technology and not making vaccines available. Now they act all alarmed and resort to reaction to keep (unvaccinated) Africans out.
Politics that protect the economic and political interests of a few above general interest and that resort to a strategy to keep people out are not only blatantly unjust but also another example of the instrumentalisation and politization of Covid-19 measures. Unless vaccination becomes available at a global scale it is likely if not inevitable that the virus will evolve variations that become increasingly apt at spreading. To stop this, we require genuine global policies aimed to protect all.
The authors thank Isabelle Desportes for her inputs and comments.
 Forthcoming paper: “They tell us to keep distance, but we sleep five people in one tent” The opportunistic governance of displaced people in Calais during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maria Hagan; Department of Geography University of Cambridge
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