Ban on flights to Africa is insensitive and not grounded in science says Black Toronto health specialist

By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Angelique Coetzee

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor that first identified the COVID-19 Omicron variant in one of her patients and disseminated the information of her finding, says she’s “stunned’’ that western nation responded with a travel ban on African nations, while a Black Toronto health specialist has described the restrictive travel measure as picking at “low-hanging fruits’’.

“When you institute a travel ban, you’re acting on a symptom of the problem,’’ said Dr Akwatu Khenti, chair of Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity.

Khenti, a university professor with a PhD in health and policy equity, is among many in Canada and elsewhere – including Africa – that argue that the absence of a global vaccination effort is allowing COVID-19 to mutate.

A version of the Omicron virus was reportedly identified in Botswana, but the variant was not brought to world attention until a global alert from Coetzee, a general practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association.

“Nothing has prepared me for the extraordinary global reaction that met my announcement that I had seen a young man in my surgery who had a case of COVID that turned out to be the Omicron variant,’’ Coetzee said in a newspaper column.

“Quite simply, I have been stunned at the response – and especially from Britain,’’ she added, describing the British stance as a “knee-jerk reaction’’

According to Coetzee, “even as our scientists tried to point out the huge gaps in the world’s knowledge about this variant, European nations immediately and unilaterally banned travel from this part of the world’’.

Dr Akwatu Khenti

Cases of the Omicron variant have appeared in more than 12 countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The decision by the European Union, Canada, Britain, the United States, Australia and other countries to cut off southern African nations from travel sparked a wave of criticism on the continent in the African Diaspora.

Many accused richer countries of hoarding vaccines and penalizing a part of the world where they had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.

Statistics shows that just about 10 percent of people in Africa have received one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared to 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe.

In a statement, the Khenti-led Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, in conjunction with several “Black community health leaders’’, said that while the travel ban “may appear colour blind’, it is considered by “Black observers across Canada and in affected countries’’ as “racially insensitive’’.

“A post-colonial era of first and second world humanity is revealing itself during this global crisis. While high income countries aim for fully dosed populations – and now third-dosed population strategies – African countries are struggling to reach the modest goal of 10 percent population targets,’’ the statement said.

Large quantities of vaccines promised to African nations have not been handed over. “Canada has delivered on 8 percent of its promised donations,’’ the statement said. “Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, just 6 percent of its population. In comparison, over 70 percent of high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40 percent of their people.’’

The ban on flights to Africa is not grounded in science and the move to restrict travel “was hasty and self-defeating’’, Khenti said in an interview.

“While we understand the need to take every step to protect the population, the decision has to be science-based and this decision wasn’t science-based,’’ he said.

“It was an easy thing to do; it’s the easiest thing. It’s sort of like low-hanging fruit from a policy shelf. There’s really little you can do immediately to solve the problem, so you do that because it looks like you’re acting to solve the problem. Whereas, in fact, you’re acting on a symptom of the problem.’’

The problem confronting Africa with the Coronavirus is “global vaccine inequity’’, Khenti emphasized.

“It really boils down to global vaccine inequity and the inability to really to move expeditiously on a global strategy to curb this pandemic,’’ he said. “So, we have Africans effectively left to fend for themselves. You can’t have a region being an incubator for COVID.’’

As well, said Khenti, there has been little acknowledgement that South Africa’s “transparent actions’’, through Coetzee alerting the world to the Omicron variant, “were both commendable and a standard for the world to follow’’.