2 December’21 Wrap: The racism of Covid travel bans

Hi there 🙋🏽‍♀️ in this week’s edition of The Wrap, we’re looking at the growing global call to stop punishing SA for identifying the Omicron variant. We celebrate Barbados’s newest royal, Rihanna, and take you through a whirlwind tour of the year that was. 

So, let’s dive into your weekly update of empowering and easy-to-understand news, brought to you by Verashni Pillay and the explain.co.za team. 😄


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1. Our take: World AIDS day: we’ve come a long way 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past two years celebrating scientific advances and championing brilliant, hard-working scientists. But it’s easy to lose sight of just how much difference science can make over time. That’s why it’s worth pausing to reflect on World AIDS Day, which was marked yesterday, as it is each December 1. This year’s theme was: “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice.”

There was a time when people wouldn’t have believed there could be an end to the epidemic. Since the virus was identified a little over 30 years ago, UNAIDS estimates that around 36.3 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. For years, being diagnosed as HIV positive effectively meant receiving a death sentence: many South Africans will remember the denialism and bad science that marked government policy during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. 😒

The past decade or so have brought fundamental shifts in how South Africa and other countries manage HIV and AIDS. Massive strides in treatment mean that this year’s theme wasn’t entirely wishful thinking. For starters, antiretroviral (ARV) treatments are more accessible. Some come in the form of a pill which, if taken daily, stops HIV from copying itself or spreading in the body. This also reduces the chances of it spreading to others. And, as we’ve reported before, researchers say a bimonthly injection containing the ARV drug cabotegravir is highly effective in preventing HIV, especially in women. A similar injection was recently developed in the UK.

The Conversation also reported that oral use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily preventative medication, is increasing among pregnant and breastfeeding women in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Kenya. Pharmaceutical companies are also finding new ways to make ARVs more palatable for kids. 🙇🏽

Things are a little more complex on the vaccine front. The HI virus changes so fast that it’s tough for scientists to develop a fully effective vaccine (HIV is very different to Covid-19 because it goes straight for the immune system, so the methods used to fast-track Covid vaccines can’t simply be copied! ☝🏽). Still, researchers are hard at work and several vaccine trials are currently underway. This year, the University of Oxford and several African partner institutions kick-started the HIV-CORE 0052 trial – which sounds vaguely like Harry Potter’s enchanted broom – with a clinical trial in Zambia; it will also be rolled out in Uganda and Kenya.

There’s still a lot of work ahead: South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, The Conversation reported. But given the astonishing changes we’ve seen in the last decade, there’s little doubt that scientists are up to the task. Now that’s something worth celebrating! 💫

2. The big story: Omi – who? 

Like other South Africans, your head is probably spinning with the news of the Omicron variant. It happened so quickly, and before we knew it, plans to see loved ones from abroad after years of separation were cruelly halted as many in the developed world, like Britain, quickly hit us with shock travel bans. 

We’ll get on to what you need to know about this new variant in a bit. First, we have to join other global experts in calling out the absurdity and plain racism of the reaction to South Africa. 😠

Our brilliant scientists first detected the variant using advanced gene-sequencing. This method analyses the differences between sequences; multiple differences may result in a new variant. Instead of being hailed for our scientists’ acuity, the country was blamed as the variant’s origin.

However, new evidence shows the variant appeared in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe including Scotland around 20 November, nearly a week before it was detected here, The Guardian reported. The variant is now present in more than 20 countries, the World Health Organisation announced.

So why put South Africa in the naughty corner? Is it because we were transparent about our findings, because we’re underdeveloped, or is it a blatant form of racism? 

The world’s largely knee-jerk reaction has ruined plans for families long separated by the virus, leaving some travelers stranded at airports, and it has serious economic consequences. Tourism booms around this time of the year, so our economy will take a huge knock (that’s the last thing we need right now). 

Many outlets, including the New York Times and The Guardian in the UK, have noted that instead of punishing South Africa in a way that hurts our economy, we should be rewarded or at least thanked for alerting the world to the new variant.

Our talented, speedy and honest scientists are the real stars here. As Jeffrey Barrett, leader of the global Covid-19 genomics initiative, put it: “The teams in Africa who detected the new Covid genome moved quickly. Their actions should not result in economic loss.” 

🔸_What is Omicron?_  

Now let’s tell you what we know so far about this new variant. No, it’s not a new Transformer, 🤖 but it is surfing the upcoming fourth wave in SA. As we told you last week, Omicron has a high rate of mutations; it changes quickly, so it’s tough for scientists to get a handle on its effects. 

But so far, here’s what the experts know – and what they don’t:

🔹It’s different. As one group of SA scientists put it: “It does not seem to be a “daughter of delta” or “grandson of beta”; instead it represents a new lineage of SARS-CoV-2.

🔹Scientists are yet to understand its transmissibility and severity but chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, Barry Schoub, said that cases so far have been mild to moderate. 

🔹It is not yet clear whether the variant will evade the vaccine. The delta variant, which was dominant for a while, responded well to the vaccine. There is no evidence yet that a new vaccine will be needed. Scientists say vaccinations and non-pharmaceutical interventions still work. 

Ultimately, don’t panic and just do what you can to stay safe. 


3. Arise, Rihanna, the Queen of a free Barbados

For the rest of the so-called Commonwealth, like South Africa, Britain’s colonial rule is a distant memory. Not so for the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados, whose residents were technically under British rule for 396 years! That changed this week when, at the stroke of midnight on November 29, Queen Elizabeth II’s reign over Barbados came to an end. 🙌🏽 The nation is now an independent republic and Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as its first president in the capital city, Bridgetown. Barbadians (also called Bajans) say this means restoration of their identity and culture and that the change was long overdue. The country’s prime minister Mia Mottley – who leads the government while the newly sworn-in president is more of a figurehead – announced the decision to cut ties with the monarchy last year, and now it’s official.

Wait, though, it gets better: Bad Girl Riri (Rihanna) was named a National Hero. She attended the presidential swearing-in ceremony, sporting a stunning rust coloured dress, and stole the show. 💅🏽 The Guardian explains her new title is apt because, since 2018, she’s been the country’s official ambassador for culture and youth. She’s never softened her Barbadian accent and her music has always been rich with her Caribbean heritage – plus she frequently channels her enormous wealth to benefit Barbados with emergency hurricane relief, healthcare and education programmes. We love the idea of this culturally rich island swapping out a colonial queen for its native one. 👑

4. Activists shelve Shell’s plans, for now

You may have heard about fuel company Shell’s plans to send sound blasts through our ocean in search of oil and gas. The process was meant to start on Wednesday despite an uproar among activists and ordinary citizens alike. It’s particularly galling given that our government gave the go-ahead – the same government, mind you, that received billions during recent global climate talks to switch to green energy sources. 😕 The good news is that four environmental and human rights organisations filed a last-minute court interdict against Shell’s plans on Wednesday; the judge is expected to make a decision tomorrow.

For its part, Shell insists that the process will not harm marine life. The method is called a seismic survey and is used to collect information from formations below the earth’s surface using sound waves. This particular survey was to take place along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. Experts say the loud noises will impact all forms of life in the ocean, from plankton and coral to whales and dolphins, which use sound to navigate for food and communicate with each other. The department of mineral resources approved Shell’s plans in 2014, The Guardian reported. But that means very little now because the approval process is outdated, according to law firm Cullinan & Associates, who are representing the organisations fighting Shell. We trust the court to decide in favour of our precious marine life – after all, this won’t be the first time activists have stepped in to defend the environment. In 2017, two South African activists took legal action against SA’s infamous $76 billion Russian nuclear deal, and won! They were awarded the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for their efforts, so we’re expecting the same energy (haha) this time too. 🐳

5. Adulting: yet another petrol price hike

We may not be locked down by the government (see more on Covid regulations in the next brief), but yet another petrol price hike means many people are stuck at home anyway. 😒 The price of petrol increased again on Wednesday – the second time in less than a month! This time petrol 95, petrol 93 and diesel increased by 75 cents a litre. This effectively pushes the price of petrol above R20 a litre for the first time in Gauteng and inland provinces. (So much for all those romantic long drives you had planned. 😬)

Don’t get mad at the government, though – it doesn’t determine the petrol price. Instead, blame international oil prices and high taxes, worsened by a weaker rand. 

There was a slightly funny side to the latest price hike: the department of mineral resources and energy made a mistake in its initial announcement, overstating the increase. While the petrol price still went up on Wednesday, it was not by 81c as the department incorrectly first stated. The extra 6 cents was included for the adjustment of wages for service station workers, but this had already been implemented in September 2021. Looks like someone’s brain is out of petrol, too…

6. Vaccine mandates are a thorny issue

There’s very little middle ground when it comes to vaccine mandates: some people fervently support the notion of having to be vaccinated to enter certain places, while others are fiercely opposed. It’s a controversial topic, but one that’s become increasingly urgent, as only about a quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated and vaccine hesitancy shows no signs of abating.

During his latest address to the nation on Sunday evening to speak about the new variant, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his cabinet was considering making vaccines mandatory for specific locations and activities. Previously he said no one will be forced to take the vaccine, but with our economy on its knees and South Africans still not queuing for their vaccines, an intervention is needed. It may not be a speedy one: Ramaphosa has done his usual thing of appointing a task team to “undertake broad consultations”. Business leaders are also pushing for vaccines to become mandatory – and showing that it works. Just 22% of staff at mega-insurer Discovery were vaccinated voluntarily. The company implemented what seems to be a carefully considered mandatory vaccination policy: three months later, 94% of its staff were vaccinated. Still, this isn’t a simple matter: there are loads of legalities to consider and rights to balance, and there’s bound to be pushback from those opposed to vaccines. 

In case you missed it, we’re still on adjusted lockdown level 1 following Ramaphosa’s address. No new restrictions were introduced, so curfew is still between 12am and 4am. Indoor gatherings are limited to 750 people, while outdoor gatherings are limited to 2 000 people. This will be reviewed in the week and is subject to change, so hang tight.

7. Joblessness increases

The July unrest and Covid-19 really put South Africa’s economy on the backfoot. 😓 This is starkly evident in constantly rising unemployment numbers throughout the year. The latest stats show that joblessness reached its highest rate since Stats SA started reporting this data in 2008. It rose to 34.9% in the third quarter from 34.4% in the second quarter. Under the expanded definition of unemployment – which includes discouraged job seekers – the unemployment rate increased to 46.6%, up from 44.2%. That essentially means half of the population who are eligible for a job do not have one. 👎🏽 Joblessness means two things: one is that the economy is not growing at a rate that enables it to absorb more workers. Two: an increased risk of unrest and crime. 

Yes, it is depressing. But solutions do exist. Business Day reports there have been encouraging announcements that have the potential to drive higher rates of private sector investment in essential infrastructure in areas like electricity, ports, rail and broadband, as well as more broadly in sectors such as mining. All of this would result in more jobs instead of the jobless economic recovery and growth we’re currently seeing. Talk is not (yet) action, of course, and we’ll be watching closely to see how the government and private sector deliver. Meanwhile, consider how you might be able to empower young people and support them to seek work and business opportunities. 

8. Looking back at a year that made us say “WTF”?

As we wind down and welcome Dezemba, we thought we’d grace you with a young throwback of the year that was.😉 Read on. 

Where do we begin? 

January seems like the obvious place, and it smells a lot like déjà vu. The second wave arrived after the December break and was accompanied by the beta variant (we were blamed for that one, too 😤). News that vaccines were en route offered some comfort – we kicked off our vaccination programme in February, beginning with our heroic, exhausted healthcare workers.

Some South Africans sprained their tongues trying out Port Elizabeth’s new name, Gqeberha. Devastating fires broke out in parts of Cape Town. The ANC FINALLY suspended former secretary-general Ace Magashule for refusing to step aside after being criminally charged for corruption (he responded by trying to suspend President Ramaphosa🔃). In a line that journalists have written approximately eleventy million times in the past few years, former president Jacob Zuma kept evading justice and nudged our high school history class memories with his Stalingrad tactics. 🥱 After more back and forths than you’ll ever see at Wimbledon, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in jail for contempt of court in June. He was released on parole in October for medical reasons, but we’re still smarting from the chaos that descended upon our nation when he was actually arrested in July. That difficult period was also a reminder that heroes live among us. We’re talking about you, Nhlanhla Lux. 😇

Zweli Mkhize was forced to step down as health minister because of his involvement in the Digital Vibes saga. At some point, we learned that it’s legal to keep a tiger in your backyard. 🐯Then elections rolled around and heads rolled…metaphorically, we’re glad to say; the ANC took a real beating and lost several metros. ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba and the EFF’s Julius Malema staged their own version of the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit by voting DA candidates into power in key cities. This surprised everyone including the blue party. 

Despite the difficulties, we’re making our way out, just like the huge container ship that was wedged in the Suez Canal for a couple of days. (Yep, that was this year!) Now if only Eskom could keep the lights on consistently… 

Elsewhere in the world, the Olympics came and went; Facebook broke and then meta-stasized; Bill Gates got divorced and Donald Trump was finally booted from office. Two rich guys raced to space and R.Kelly was finally convicted of sex crimes. 

The list goes on, and we could, too – but we’ll pause here to give you the breathing room this year was too rude to provide. Look out for our other reviews in the coming weeks! 🤓

That’s it from us at The Wrap, an award-winning product of explain.co.za – simple news summaries for busy people. 💁🏾‍♀  

Today’s Wrap was sponsored by King Price Insurance. To advertise with us, mail info@explain.co.za for a quote. 


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_Till next time, goodbye from the team_ ✌🏽