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What South Africa and Omicron tell us about inequality

Talk about shooting the messenger. Last week, South African scientists unearthed a new coronavirus variant, since named Omicron, and quickly reported it. New variations can come from anywhere. However, the reward for the scientists’ skill, speed and honesty is a crippling travel ban that will plunge South Africa’s tourism-dependent economy into further misery.

The reaction in South Africa is understandable angry. Some have even vilified the scientists themselves, saying they should keep quiet. That would be a disaster. Scientists like Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the Center for Epidemiological Response and Innovation and one of the people behind the discovery of Omicron, has done a lot of favor for the world.

A bit definitively don’t know yet about the new variant. It has an alarming number of mutations, only 30 on the mutant protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells. Theoretically, that could make it easier to transmit.

But South Africa, which has experienced a bad wave of the Delta variant when Omicron struck, had very low levels of Covid infection. It makes sense that, when Omicron goes up against Delta in countries where the latter is widely circulated, it will be defeated. That’s what happened with the Beta mutation that was first discovered in South Africa. In evolutionary terms, it turned out to be a wet squib.

There is also no indication of the severity of the disease that Omicron causes. In South Africa, symptoms were bland. Yes, most infections are among schoolchildren. When it attacks older populations, it can cause more severe disease. Similarly, it can lead to the same, or even milder, disease. One way for the Covid pandemic to end is for a dominant but relatively harmless strain of bacteria to emerge – and live in symbiosis with its human host.

Caution stipulates that, until proven otherwise, Omicron should be treated as a threat. A new breakout variant is almost inevitable. For months, scientists have warned of the folly of leaving large numbers of the world’s population unvaccinated. Yet politicians and pharmaceutical companies – regardless of their public statements – have conspired to do exactly that.

In June, as richer countries began to sever the link between infection and fatal disease, vaccination rates in poorer countries remained low. unfortunatly low. At that time, less than 3% of South Africans were fully immunized. That number has increased to 24% is still not enough. In Nigeria, with a population of over 200 m and limited ability to detect stupid variations, only 1.7% people have been vaccinated. Such low coverage is an accident waiting to happen.

South Africa may be the birthplace of Omicron, but countries like these are still a possible source for future TV series. Due to the toxic legacy of apartheid, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies on earth. That increases its vulnerability to Covid. Essentially a small rich economy combined with a large poor economy, South Africa’s hybrid nature is the worst of both worlds. Wealthy South Africans bring the infection back from global cities and European ski resorts. Then the infection spread among their mostly poor countrymen, many of whom lived in towns in cramped, multi-generational homes where social distancing almost impossible.

Connected to the world by a jet system, the level of infection is high. Relatively poor, low vaccination rate. Today, South Africa’s fully vaccinated population is only slightly higher than Bangladesh. Unfortunately, supplies have improved. South Africa has 16 million doses in reserve. It may be too late. The stop-start nature of the campaign, coupled with distrust of government, another side effect of poverty and a long history of apartheid, have contributed to widespread hesitancy towards vaccines. .

Finally, South Africans live in a country where the burden of other diseases, including AIDS and tuberculosis, is high. That history helps explain its sequencing capabilities. Scientists have speculate that immunosuppressed individuals may provide a reservoir in which the virus can more easily mutate. There is no evidence of this. But if that turns out to be true, then at least initially, leaving the Aids epidemic in poorer countries could come back to bite us.

There is still much to learn about Omicron, but one thing is as clear as a vial of vaccine. Sharp inequalities, both within and between countries, are good for pathogens. It has been said a million times before in a thousand different ways. It will repeat. Inequality is bad for your health.

david.pilling@ft.com

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