Africa carries more weight than it thinks when it comes to pandemic and vaccine

If anyone hoped for a post-pandemic revival of international cooperation in a world still suffering from Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, trade wars and global supply chain disruptions, they would probably be disappointed. today. International relations in 2020 were mainly driven by aid policy and mask diplomacy. The second year of the coronavirus pandemic has been devoted to vaccines, geopolitical competition and travel restrictions.

In a July edition of my Africa Watch newsletter, I noted that the rhetoric of renewed multilateralism heard at world summits and other international forums at the start of the pandemic has finally given way to provincialism on the part of more countries. wealthier and more industrialized – primarily, but not exclusively, in the West. This development, especially in its manifestation as vaccine nationalism, has disproportionately affected Africans, only 7 percent of them are fully vaccinated. According to the World Health Organization, or WHO, only 20 African countries vaccinated at least 10 percent of their population.

As if the continent’s low vaccination rates weren’t a sufficient burden, the global response to the novel variant of the omicron coronavirus has been just as predictable as it is deplorable. When the WHO announced late last month that researchers in South Africa and Botswana had identified the new variant of COVID-19, the ink had barely dried. the statement from the world health body that a wave of travel bans have been imposed on seven countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as Canada, Israel, Australia, India, United Arab Emirates and several other countries. As noted by Tulio de Oliveira, the researcher who led the team of South African scientists that identified the new variant, blocking commercial flights from South Africa also meant blocking the country’s means to import the chemicals needed to help it. , he and his fellow researchers, to follow the spread of omicron.

In the case of Canada, not only did it ban African travelers, but it required Canadian citizens who had stayed in prohibited countries to get a negative PCR test from a ‘third countryBefore returning to the country, implicitly denigrating the testing capacities of African countries. Even though Canada has now ditched the PCR requirement for third countries and lifted travel bans for African countries, just like the UK, the damage in the form of reputational and economic losses, not to mention disruption to trips, were caused. (The US and EU have maintained their travel bans.)

Almost simultaneously, a wave of media from around the world, from Germany and Spain to Thailand, published images and stories representing Africans as carriers of the new omicron variant. These cartoons and stories were quickly condemned by African government officials, academics, social media commentators and even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for contributing to a climate of xenophobia and racism.

They were also very hypocritical. To begin with, it is now clear that traces of the omicron variant may have been present in many countries that enacted these travel bans on African countries long before South African scientists reported it, and some of these pre-existing cases did not involve travel to any part of Africa. In addition, in many African countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Rwanda and Algeria,the index cases of the omicron variant were sampled from European travelers or Africans returning from Europe. If there was any doubt about the hypocrisy, racism and xenophobia of travel bans in Africa, suffice it to note that Western countries have not enforced travel restrictions against each other, even after confirmation. cases of the omicron variant.

There are lessons Africa can learn from the ongoing pandemic, the most important of which is that proactive engagement is a necessity in international relations.

Finally, at this stage of the pandemic, it seems perverse to have to reiterate that travel bans are mostly ineffective in reducing the spread of infectious diseases. They are rarely guided by scientific decision-making, and in this case, as in many others, have more to do with colonial notions of Africa as a desperate epicenter of darkness, and of Africans as vectors of dirt and of diseases. In practice, however, South Africa has been punished for having one of the most effective public health surveillance systems in the world.

During a recent dialogue on Twitter Spaces in which I participated, an audience member asked me what the governments of Nigeria and other African countries could do in response to this type of discriminatory treatment without harming their long-term interests, or those of their nationals residing in other countries. The question rests on the assumption that the unequal treatment Africa and its peoples faced during – and even before – the pandemic is a consequence of the continent’s marginal place within the international system. If African countries were richer and more powerful, the argument goes, they would have more “power” to counter this kind of discriminatory treatment.

The most obvious counter-argument to this is the case of China, which, despite being the world’s second-largest economy, was initially blamed for the emergence of the coronavirus and continues to pay a reputation price for the controversy over the origins of the epidemic. Until January 2020, leading Western publications, including The Economist, Wired and Nature used the expression “Wuhan virus” to denote the coronavirus, just like former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly mentioned the “Chinese virus” and the “Chinese virus”, both verbally and in tweets. The start of the pandemic saw a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment and, more broadly, anti-Asian hatred, including incidents of discrimination and even violence against people of East Asian descent. It is therefore clear that the exercise of greater power is not in itself a guarantee against discriminatory treatment.

The problem with this kind of argument is that it depends on a narrow notion of “leverage” and how it can be applied in international diplomacy. It ignores how small and medium powers around the world, including African countries like Botswana, Ghana, Senegal and even Rwanda, often exceed their weight in foreign and international affairs, or for that matter the role that regional heavyweights can play, and have played in the past, in raising the continent’s priorities in global forums.

Since the start of the pandemic, for example, South Africa has championed Africa’s concerns about its effects, facilitated by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s stint as African Union presidency last year. Under Ramaphosa’s leadership, the AU launched the Africa Vaccine Procurement Task Force, the bloc’s central procurement agent that works to secure vaccines for the 54 AU member states.

South Africa has also worked with India launch the historic TRIPS proposal temporarily waive intellectual property protections governing COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapies. As the EU and its member states continue to oppose the waiver, the Biden administration has since overthrown Washington’s opposition amid national and international pressure, just as it did when it faced a wave of international criticism for its restrictions on exports of vaccine raw materials during the COVID-19 outbreak in India earlier this year.

And when the most recent travel bans were imposed on South Africa and its neighbors, Ramaphosa was among the most visible and vocal critics of the restrictions, condemning them in blunt language at the Dakar International Forum on peace and security as well as the China-Africa Cooperation Forum.

In other words, “leverage” is not as clearly defined in the GDP and the size of a country’s armed forces, however large they may be. It also stems from how leaders use the tools at their disposal to get what they want, in an international system that operates to some extent on consensus and coalitions. It should also be noted that African countries, unlike their counterparts, for the most part maintained their long tradition of multilateral cooperation during the pandemic, for which they are barely receiving the credit they deserve.

Nonetheless, there are lessons that Africa can learn from the ongoing pandemic, the most important of which is that the art of governance is a necessity in international relations, and African countries must start to take it more seriously. , by leveraging their large voting blocs in international bodies like the United States. nations to advance their collective interests. And this effort must start at home, overcoming structural and institutional obstacles within the AU and regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, and the African Community. of the East, or CAE.

It can be difficult to craft a singular ‘African’ foreign policy, but at the very least, regional heavyweights like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya can and should be more proactive in international engagement than they are. ‘they have only been in recent times while taking on leadership roles. in their respective regions. The recent example given by South Africa and its neighbors, compared to the relatively lukewarm reaction of senior Nigerian government officials when their citizens were added to travel bans, is a case in point.

African governments and media organizations also need to take public diplomacy as a foreign policy tool much more seriously than they have in the past. They cannot continue to rely on the benevolence of Western media organizations to shape perceptions of their country. Rather, they should invest in efforts to tell their own stories and communicate their favorite messages.

There is no shortage of compelling stories to tell, from South Africa’s state-of-the-art genome tracing infrastructure and Senegal’s innovative Pasteur Institute to contact tracing, mHealth and self-diagnostic technologies in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola and Kenya. It is only by making itself heard more about them, while being more proactive and more lucid in its international engagement, that Africa will improve its “leverage effect” in world affairs.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is Associate Editor of the World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has been published in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustre_Cee.

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