I have been an American living in South Africa for more than eight years. Since November, the omicron variant has become a fulcrum that has linked my two countries, which usually orbit quite independently.
The world-class scientists in South Africa’s network of virus researchers were the first to sequence omicron. Of course, I do not say that the variant originated in South Africa. In the last weeks of November, much of the Western world fell back on this assumption, lashing out with a string of travel bans here and a racist newspaper cartoon there.
Some of the more thoughtful commentary at the time highlighted the hypocrisy of hoarding vaccine doses throughout early 2021 and then slamming the doors against countries only just getting access to supply and where new variants could develop among the unvaccinated population. This argument was accurate in general but not in the specific case of South Africa.
Yes, South Africa, like many other countries, was locked out of early vaccine deliveries while vaccine manufacturers — including a factory in South Africa — rushed deliveries to the countries that could pay the most for preorders. Yes, it is right to characterize the behavior of some of these countries as hoarding in the face of desperate global need. Canada was the worst offender, having procured the equivalent of 9.6 doses per resident. Comparatively, the United States secured a sedate 3.7 doses per person.
However, after a bumpy start to mass vaccinations in May, South Africa administered vaccine doses at appreciable speed, reaching 1.5 million doses in a week in September and now sitting with 27% of the population fully vaccinated. Why then, in November, did South Africa stop delivery of vaccine doses for fear the supply would sit on shelves unadministered and expire?
In the end, South Africa was plagued by the same vaccine hesitancy and refusal as the United States. Still reeling under the legacy of a primary and secondary public school system intentionally decimated by apartheid policies, it is unsurprising, considering talk of mRNA vaccines, antibodies and asymptomatic infections was lacking. Yet a surprising amount of the COVID-19 and vaccine disinformation that overtook South Africa originated in the United States, still one of the most highly educated countries in the world.
A further trend of the pandemic period connects South Africa and the United States. Much has been made in both countries of the appropriate weighting of economic versus public health prerogatives in pandemic policymaking.
Most recently in South Africa, the announcement of the omicron variant brought no increases in lockdown restrictions, though they remain stricter than those prevalent in the United States. Initially, I was aghast at the lack of action. My husband, however, kindly reminded me that unemployment in South Africa is currently 35%. South Africa’s economy is in deep trouble. In this context, the dark arithmetic of choosing an open economy over public health measures is disturbing but defensible.
On the other hand, the United States seems to have made a similarly dire choice of the economy over public health even in the absence of the drastic economic picture that South Africa faces. The Dec. 27 change to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines shortening isolation periods to five days for COVID-19-positive patients who are asymptomatic or whose symptoms have resolved is transparently in the interest of workforce management over community health.
What are the economic conditions that triggered such a shift? Unemployment is down to 4%, close to pre-pandemic levels. While in South Africa, this gamble with large-scale morbidity and mortality at least tracks with the economic situation, in the United States, the economic argument is comparatively sparse.
Perhaps it follows from this lopsided calculus that the United States’ outcomes in the pandemic era are so poor. Americans have adjusted easily enough to living in an ongoing mass casualty event. Omicron is spreading in the U.S. on the back of the monthslong delta wave that has strained hospital capacities and even introduced care rationing at some U.S. hospitals. But even in this context, the U.S. chooses preservation of economic indicators over preventing further loss of life.
It has been a harrowing few weeks throughout the world since the announcement of the omicron variant. Time will still tell how the U.S. and South Africa ultimately navigate this latest crisis. I am still keeping tabs on friends in South Africa and the U.S. with COVID-19 cases. It may end up being the period where I feel the connection between my two countries the most.
This article was originally published by Chicago Tribune.