Johannesburg – November 25 2021 will undoubtedly go down in history as a highlight of how countries should not communicate sensitive information whose impact could adversely affect markets, impact economies, marginalise developing countries and send shock waves in key sectors such as tourism.
This occurred after scientists in South Africa identified a new Covid-19 variant and instantaneously announced this to the world. .
As to whether there was coherent consultations between the scientific community and South Africa’s key clusters of government remains a mystery.
Upon these revelations, facts began to emerge, but numerous countries pressed the panic button by placing southern African countries on their red travel lists, led by the UK, who were first to close their borders to anyone from southern Africa, except for British citizens.
These growing travel bans on southern African countries on the basis that our scientists detected Omicron, a Covid-19 variant that has a high number of mutations, were unwarranted and insensitive to the challenges faced by developing countries.
A day later, several cases had been identified in Europe – two in the UK, two in Germany, one in Belgium and another one in Italy, while a suspected case was found in the Czech Republic. The US, Canada, the UK and the overall EU have all restricted travel from southern Africa amid haphazard concerns over the new variant.
Ironically, these countries imposed travel bans despite a firm confirmation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the effect that very little was unknown about Omicron at the time.
To place global markets at such risk on the basis of unknown factors meant that these Western countries were willing to marginalise key African states and suppress their economies without any scientific proof or risk.
Today, we know that from South African scientists, particularly Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the South African Medical Association, who first spotted the Covid Omicron variant, that symptoms seem “mild”.
Coetzee told the BBC in an interview that the patients she had seen had “extremely mild symptoms”.
We also know for a fact that the Omicron variant, which is now circulating in western Europe, was first detected in the Netherlands as early as November 19, a few days before South African scientists blew the whistle.
The discovery showcases South Africa’s strong reputation in scientific and epidemiological excellence, and it deserves to be praised for detecting Omicron instead of being penalised with travel bans.
While some economists predict that the global economy would weather the storm with ease given that global economies have recovered gradually with each Covid-19 wave, the impact on southern African countries will be devastating.
Millions worth of value in travel and tourism have been washed away as a result of the negative reputational damage for these affected countries.
That said, South Africa’s economy is showing signs of recovery, recording its fourth consecutive quarterly growth of 1.2% in the second quarter of 2021.
This variant, albeit handled irresponsibly by the West, presents an opportunity for African leaders to shift the dial and set a new discourse regarding the pandemic in terms of transparency and equitable access to vaccines by the African Union’s 54 member states.
It is time for Africa to take a position – a firm one for that matter. The begging bowl strategy is no longer applicable and must be stopped.
Importantly, the South African scientific community should take a considered approach in terms of strategic communication planning before making announcements that may have global economic implications.
Given that a lot remains unknown about Omicron, it would make sense to craft a clear communication and messaging strategy outlining the facts with contributions from all clusters of our already constrained economy.
There should be a protocol that outlines who gets to say what, to whom, where, when and how.
While the WHO has commended our scientists for reporting the variant speedily and with the utmost transparency, a better-coordinated communication drive should have been implemented, supported by the identification of key strategic issues that would impact the country, the continent and global economies.
Africa’s future, therefore, is highly dependent on a shift in leadership dialogue from a begging bowl syndrome towards an active player in global socioeconomic issues.
The discovery of Omicron is a lost opportunity for a coordinated communication and brand positioning campaign of Africa’s sophisticated expertise in managing and defeating complex diseases and other healthcare challenges.
It is not too late for Africa to start.
• Matseba is the managing director of Reputation 1st Group and former president of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa.
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