“Today, I spent a big part of my day talking to genomic and biotech companies as soon we will run out of reagents as airplanes are not flying to South Africa. It would be ‘evil’ if we can not answer the questions the world needs about #Omicron due to the travel ban!”
This tweet came Monday from Tulio de Oliveira – a researcher from South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation who helped discover the new variant of Covid that’s currently spreading more worries of a “fourth wave” of the pandemic around the world.
It shows the tension between the extremely human response of retreating in the face of an existential threat and the overriding necessity of borderless cooperation required to save lives.
It took only a few hours for international governments to announce travel bans following the B.1.1.529 variant’s elevation to the Greek letter “omicron” as a “variant of concern” on 26 November. By Wednesday, 70 nations including New Zealand had upped their border restrictions in relation to a collection of southern African nations – this despite the fact that the new variant had already been detected in 12 European countries, Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada and Australia.
New Zealand’s response is, at least, consistent – we’ve sought to use our border (and helpful isolation) as the primary way to first exclude Covid and now keep a lid on Delta cases. But when the vital work of researchers like Tulio de Oliveira is threatened by a lack of access to the chemicals he needs to study Omicron at source, surely the whole concept of travel bans requires a rethink.
At the same time as so many countries were raising their walls, 32 ministers of health (notably not including New Zealand’s Andrew Little) were putting their names to a call for an international vaccine treaty in the British Medical Journal.
If anything, the arrival of Omicron from a continent where only six percent of people are fully vaccinated should be precisely the push required for governments to start to think more strategically and more globally. It’s potentially pointless protecting your own citizens when the disease is cooking up alternative resistant strains among unvaccinated populations.
And yet major players are still hesitant.
“Again — instead of solidarity — we see nationalism and isolation of Africa even though the Omicron variant has been found in several other regions too,” Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of the research group Medicines Law & Policy told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “And this raises the question: will we see a repeat of vaccine hoarding and the protection of manufacturing know-how exclusivity by rich nations or is this the turning point where nations get together?”
It’s maybe because it’s such a counterintuitive idea to battle the pandemic by both combining personal restrictions (social distancing, vaccine mandates etc) with international freedoms (waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines, publishing transparent data on outbreaks, sharing innovation and scientific breakthroughs), that the world has struggled so much over the past two years.
But the mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” that underpins the commitment made by world leaders at the June 2020 Global Vaccine Summit requires people to peer over their walls – not just for the safety of others, but, ultimately, for their own wellbeing too.
Even within our own New Zealand borders, we’re struggling with the concept of cooperation for the benefit of all.
On Friday, as we lift our own Waiheke “travel ban” and welcome back Aucklanders to our beaches and businesses, we will also see the rollout of vaccine passes on everything from Fullers passenger ferries to cafes and restaurants. It will no doubt take some getting used to for most of us, and inevitably raise heckles and temperatures for some. It’s telling that Gulf News this week reports that one eatery has already come across a customer trying to proffer a fake vaccine pass and that others are already considering ways to deal with people who refuse to wear masks or sign in.
And in two weeks’ time, when the Auckland regional borders lift, you can expect more friction from the opposite direction. Already Te Tii Waitangi ki Te Pēwhairangi have let it be known that they intend to raise a hard border to prevent holidaymakers getting to the Bay of Islands for Christmas – and there will surely be similar pushback from worried locals ahead of the traditional deluge of Aucklanders on holiday hotspots through Northland, Coromandel and the rest of the North Island.
This holiday season will be unlike any other holiday season for Waiheke as we seek to find a balance between opening our borders enough to benefit businesses and allow friends and whānau to connect, while also trying to protect each other from the inevitable spread of Delta.
The divisions that come from this tension are already very apparent in our community – it’s vital that over the coming months we take time to look beyond our own noses to ensure “everyone is safe”. • James Belfield