After the slave trade era, which saw thousands of black Africans forcefully taken out of the comfort of their homes, families, communities and shores of the continent, colonialism came into being. Instead of carting away slaves on ships, which had lost its profitability, the use of Africa’s resources to strengthen and enrich the colonialist countries appealed more to them. Thus began the European conquests of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa era.
The principal powers involved in the modern colonization of Africa were Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy. In nearly all African countries today, the Lingua Franca is mostly the one imposed by a recent colonial power. The effect of colonialism is still abound across the continent. Arguably, the major impact of colonialism is that it brought about the under-development of African territories in many different ways.
An astute student of history knows how colonialism literally devastated the communal heritage Africa is known for. Also, during colonialism, race-based segregation was imposed across the continent, not so dissimilar to what was witnessed in the recent past in South Africa’s apartheid system. This was done partly to keep “white” officials separate from Africans who were considered to be “carriers” of diseases, such as, smallpox, syphilis, sleeping sickness, tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera.
Fast-forward to the Aids epidemic, which broke out about 40-years ago, travel and residency restrictions were imposed on people with HIV, despite there being no public health rationale. These restrictions led to deportations, denial of entry into countries, loss of employment, denial of asylum, and increased stigma and discrimination, which disproportionately affected Africans.
In 2014 at the climax of the Ebola outbreak, many Western countries instituted travel bans against African countries. These countries denied visas to residents of and recent travelers to these countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) demanded justification for the measures because it wasn’t consistent with the spirit of the revised International Health Regulations of 2005. WHO noted that the disregard by the culpable nations of the treaty harms the global social contract and our ability to respond collectively to future epidemics.
There is an insidious perception out there that Africa is a “source of disease” hence the swift and frequent travel bans. The recent travel bans imposed on African countries as a result of the Omicron variant, which has unofficially been branded an African disease albeit enough evidence of its origin hasn’t been made available, is draconian.
It seems as if travel bans can be described as the “modern” versions of colonialist policies and in more cases than not, have been used against Africans. The roots of these travel bans, which WHO says will not prevent Omicron from spreading, goes way back to colonial times and reflects twisted perceptions and marginalization of Africa and Africans.
Recall that on November 26, WHO designated a new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529, a variant of concern and named it Omicron. A day earlier, researchers in South Africa brought the variant to the world’s attention.
Now, instead of applauding the noble efforts of South African scientists, hailing its government’s transparency, and coming up with constructive ways to face this new potential threat, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom led the world into blanket travel bans on southern African countries, including those that have yet to record a case.
Over 30 countries have now placed travel bans with majority of the recipients African countries. Thus, the rush to “punish” Africa suggests that African countries have now become the epicenter of COVID-19, when this is far from reality. This not only draws attention away from Western public health failures and rising numbers of infections, but also erases the efforts of African health authorities and local health systems to contain the spread of the virus.
When COVID-19 took the world by storm, it was reported in several health publications and the media that the disease will decimate Africa due to its fragile health facilities and systems. It was even predicted that it would half the continent’s population. However, this expectation didn’t pan out as expected. Rather, many African countries were able to mitigate the spread of the virus. While many European countries and the United States where recording high fatalities and infection rates, Africa, still maintained relatively low mortality.
For over a year now, African leaders, scientists, and activists have been calling on the wealthier nations, to end what has been called “vaccine apartheid”. There is a vaccine shortage in Africa and evidence shows that many wealthier nations have refused to end the stockpiling of vaccines, share licences and technology as well as waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. This is despite the fact that African nations participated in the testing and production of some of these medical technologies.
It is hard not to see the colonial undertones of the Omicron related travel bans on African countries. Many African leaders and activists have been calling for an end to the travel bans faulting the rationale behind the action. WHO has also maintained that the travel ban will not solve the spread of the virus, rather vaccination will. However, these calls have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. “African leaders, it is time to begin to put your house in order!” If Africa was economically powerful, possessed military might second to none and politically savvy then perhaps the continent wouldn’t be taken for granted as is the case currently. Within the comity of nations, whenever deliberations and decisions are to be made we are never invited to a seat at the table.
If by peradventure Africa is invited, it often always comes from a place of weakness hence rendering it, voiceless. For instance, over 76 years of its existence, not a single African nation holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council which is where power is brokered. If Africa wants to be taken seriously, the continent needs to begin to act seriously.
A popular African proverb states that, “tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Tomorrow will belong to Africans only if Africans begin to prepare for it today by making the African Continent thrive.
The continent is rich in natural and mineral resources. One cannot see why the continent cannot become a superpower. The continent is particularly rich in human resource, primarily youths who are ingenious and if provided with the necessary environment will bloom like a flower, for if a flower is tended to, it will bloom, no matter how many weeds surround it.
Finally, a blanket travel ban is not a lasting solution to the spread of any disease. Also, vaccine nationalism, border closures and other inward-looking, discriminatory actions cannot guarantee global health security.
Let science, not politics, drive disease management and control measures. lobal health inequalities rooted in systems of economic power imbalances and upheld by long colonial histories need to be dismantled… yesterday!