The detection of the new COVID-19 variant "Omicron" in South Africa poses a new, looming challenge for African countries that have already been struggling to recover economically since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. This is especially relevant amid new procedures taken by European countries and others to limit the spread of the new variant. African economies will take a serious blow if the lockdown and travel ban from some African countries continue, and the scope of banned countries is only expected to widen. Moreover, vital sectors such as oil and tourism will be affected due to these measures, while global superpowers, especially China and the United States, will likely expand their influence in the continent through vaccine and medical diplomacy.
South Africa’s announcement of the new COVID-19 variant "Omicron" has several implications:
1. Africa will turn into a COVID-19 hotspot: The new variant was detected in a South African province, which then informed the World Health Organization (WHO) on 24 November 2021 about the detection and designation of Omicron. However, this virus could have already existed in the other eight provinces. The variant was first detected in Botswana on 11 November 2021, then among a group of infected youth in South Africa, raising the infection toll to 22 persons. Afterwards, new infections were detected in Botswana, Israel, Belgium, and Hong Kong, with 28 new infections in total according to the Guardian. The new variant was not the first variant to be detected in South Africa, as the country witnessed another variant which later spread to seven countries during the third wave of the pandemic in May 2021. This variant was called C.1.2 and spread throughout various African, Asian and Pacific countries.
2. Worldwide concerns about risks of Omicron infection: Reports indicate that no other COVID-19 variants have sparked the same global concern since the detection of the Delta variant. The WHO says that Omicron is the most infectious of all variants so far, which is highly disturbing in of itself. The primary concern with Omicron is that it possesses a group of mutations that can evade immunity responses resulting from vaccines or previous infections, thereby accelerating its spread.
Some are skeptical of the new variant’s ability to evade vaccinations or spread at an accelerated pace compared to the Delta variant, which poses threats on a global scale. Yet, the UK Health Security Agency said that Omicron’s reproduction number in the South African province of Gauteng, where it was first found, was now (2), an unprecedented level of transmission since the beginning of the pandemic. Reproduction numbers above (1) mean the virus will spread rampantly, making this new variant the worst ever.
3. Isolating some African countries amid precautionary measures: As soon as the WHO announced the new variant, nations began taking proactive preventative measures against it. EU countries imposed a travel ban and closed borders to travelers from several countries, such as South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
Against this backdrop, the WHO called on accelerating travel bans and adopting a risk assessment approach. The Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) states that a travel ban on African countries who reported the new variant would not yield significant results, based on the experience of similar previous bans since the pandemic began in 2020. South Africa finds itself increasingly isolated after announcing the new variant, deeming the world’s reaction as unjustified and the recent travel bans, in particular, as a collective sanction.
4. Dilemma of limited vaccination in Africa: Estimates indicate that less than 6% of African citizens have been vaccinated. Africa received only 2% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccinations, while other countries received more than 5.7 billion vaccinations. On a continent of 1.2 billion citizens, only two African countries have managed to vaccinate 40% of their population, which is the lowest percentage worldwide, according to the WHO. Millions of healthcare workers have not been vaccinated, which will likely only serve to accelerate the spread of the virus and increase the infection rate. Many believe that this poor vaccination scenario may have paved the way for Omicron and other variants to emerge, sparking an international debate on vaccination inequality.
The recent developments regarding the Omicron outbreak in some African countries and the expedited isolation of these countries underscore a huge risk to the economic and health sectors of a continent already facing longstanding crises:
1. Pressure on African health systems: The African health sector will be stretched to its limits as a result of anticipated exponential rates of infection. Healthcare systems across the continent suffer from aging medical equipment, deteriorated health infrastructure, and sub-par health services. The disastrous implications of the pandemic will also put a massive strain on the budget of African countries due to increased health expenditures, not to mention the existing economic crises since the start of the pandemic. All of this portends to a collapse in Africa’s healthcare situation.
2- Deteriorating African economies: African economies will likely be affected by the growing global concerns surrounding the spread of Omicron. This negatively affects trade between African and other countries. Europe, for example, believes that Africa is ineffective at fighting COVID-19 because it is ill-equipped to handle a pandemic of this scale. If international organizations do not direct more aid to African countries to fight this pandemic, then the precautionary measures of lockdown and travel ban would severely curtail foreign revenue streams and hamper the tourism industry and, by extension, African economies. Moreover, the spread of the new variant amid the crippled health infrastructure in Africa and expectations of increased infections, lockdown, and global supply chain disruptions all raise the concern of multinational companies. Ultimately, it will put several foreign investments and projects in Africa on hold, and many investors will exit the market as a result.
3- Negatively affecting oil and gas exports: The spread of Omicron and subsequent precautionary measures will negatively affect oil and gas exports, which are a strong asset for African economies. Oil prices have dropped by 2% (US $5.00) as of 26 November 2021 due to growing concerns of decreased demand in the coming period.
4- Increased terrorist activity in Africa: Terrorist groups benefit from COVID-19 related instability by stepping up their operations in most African countries. This is especially the case for the Islamic State (IS), which increased its activities in west, east, south, and central Africa over the course of the pandemic. As such, these groups pose definite security risks that will affect the stability of African countries.
5- Growing competition in vaccine diplomacy: The spread of the new variant is a good opportunity for international and African countries to expand their influence by playing an effective role in vaccine and medical aid distribution on the continent, thereby increasing international competition in Africa.
In conclusion, the new variant Omicron will represent a major challenge to African countries whose economies have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. Despite proactive measures by different countries to limit its spread, the situation will likely have a negative effect on a majority of vital sectors in African economies, including tourism and infrastructure. This new health crisis highlights the overall need for a global movement to support African countries in overcoming this pandemic.