December 1 was World AIDS Day, marking the 40th anniversary of the first onset of symptoms. More than 36 million people have died worldwide from AIDS-related illnesses. The death rate slows as effective drug treatments become more widely available. But the inequity that has long fueled the AIDS epidemic still exists, with punitive consequences, especially for the people of southern Africa. The persistence and very uneven impacts of the ongoing AIDS epidemic serve as a warning as the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the world.
Little is currently known about this newly identified variant of SARS-CoV-2, particularly if it spreads more easily or if it can cause more severe COVID-19. What we do know is in large part thanks to its rapid identification by scientists in Botswana and South Africa. Fatima Hassan, founder of the Health Justice Initiative, congratulated these scientists for Democracy Now! News hour, saying, “I think they must be celebrated for this because there wasn’t a cloud of secrecy surrounding this particular variant.”
Rather than being celebrated, the nations of southern Africa are isolated. The United States quickly implemented a travel ban, barring anyone from eight southern African countries from entering the country. Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the United Kingdom have followed suit.
“An uneven travel ban has been imposed on many countries in southern Africa,” Hassan said. “It’s actually quite racist.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to the bans on Sunday: “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will continue to be at risk. Instead of banning travel, the rich countries of the world must support the efforts of developing economies to quickly access and manufacture enough doses of the vaccine for their populations. “
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the travel bans “travel apartheid,” which only exacerbates the growing global divide caused by vaccine apartheid. In a recent opinion piece, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the hoarding of excess vaccine doses by wealthy countries with highly vaccinated populations, including with booster shots. , of “morally repugnant and epidemiological madness”.
It would be easier to immunize the world than to try in vain to prevent variants of COVID-19 from crossing borders. Omicron is one example; the variant was already present in the Netherlands before its existence was announced in Africa. Travelers on planes from South Africa transported the variant to Europe, where the mishmash of conflicting national travel restrictions already in place and inadequate quarantine protocols have led Dutch authorities to force many potentially Omicron positive travelers departing for their final destination, accelerating the spread of the new variant.
Pharmaceutical companies profiting from the pandemic are slowing vaccination in poor and middle-income countries. With vaccine patents, companies like Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna are using intellectual property protections to block sharing of their secret vaccine formulas.
Journalism professor Steven Thrasher sees a parallel between Big Pharma’s role now with COVID-19 and how countries in the South, and primarily Southern Africa, have been and continue to be affected by AIDS:
“Today there is no reason for anyone to die of AIDS. It is a slowly growing virus and so from the moment we know a person is infected we can give them all the support they need. We have the science for it. We have the medicine for it. It’s just about protecting capitalism and pharmaceutical company profits, ”Thrasher told Democracy Now! “We are seeing a very similar dynamic again with COVID-19… we have the vaccines, we have the drugs that are very effective and they are being held again… to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical companies. “
Over a year ago, South Africa and India proposed that the World Trade Organization temporarily suspend TRIPS, or aspects of trade-related intellectual property rights, in order to speed up vaccinations against COVID-19 around the world. President Joe Biden was applauded last May for supporting the waiver.
Amnesty International, along with members of the United States Congress and numerous labor and health groups, delivered a petition signed by more than three million people to the White House, noting, “Six months later, in the absence of American leaders to reach a waiver agreement, the European Union, on behalf of Germany, as well as Switzerland and the United Kingdom blocked progress.
People before profit must be the guiding mantra as we soon enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without immediate action, we may well cope with COVID, just as we continue to fight AIDS, for the next 40 years.