What if countries stopped reporting variants of concern when found, over fears for the economic and social implications?
Waking up today, it’s hard to miss concerns over a new variant. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, right? Caution is no doubt important here, particularly with such significant shifts in behavior, and make up. That’s not the issue.
Countries around the globe immediately took measures to halt flights, impose fresh bans and do just about anything to stop the movement of people from at least 6 areas of South Africa.
There’s no question that may prove crucially important, but there’s another side to the coin, which is far too overlooked: we should really be thanking South Africa. Their best in class genomic sequencing and transparency will now save lives, but at the cost of their vital tourism recovery. Likely, for far longer than necessary.
If we want countries to continue being transparent and share variants of concern, we must actively incentivize honesty and data sharing, particularly if they are cut off from the rest of the world, however briefly.
The Health Problems Travel Bans May Bring
From seaside escapes to game lodges deep in the bush, South African tourism is a vital element of the economy. And rightly so — it’s one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.
Just as things were beginning to pick up ahead of the booming summer season – yes, it’s about to be summer there – the ‘Nu’ variant is closing all doors and quashing any hopes of full occupancy at hotels or flights full of people to help recoup two years of losses.
That’s happening because South Africa took an honorable, world leading approach to the virus and sequencing its many changes, and let the world know as soon as humanly possible.
Businesses will now be worse off than before, as refunds are dished out and future interest wanes. Governments often fail to account for the significant lag between a change in their policies and actual change in travel behavior.
Even if all concerns were dropped tomorrow, it would be months before confidence would be regained. Overnight bans may indeed be the right move, but if support and encouragement for the “whistleblower” style action doesn’t come with the bans, other countries which rely equally, or more so on tourism may not be as transparent.
They may just pretend they didn’t notice a variant, so as to avoid being the “the place” to avoid.
In other words, if tourism dependent countries are afraid of the economic and social blowback of letting the world know about variants of concern, they might not let us know, and then we’ll all be really screwed.
The issue of overnight travel bans and flight suspensions is above the pay grade of 99% of people reading this, myself included, but the logic in encouraging countries to continue to come forward with concerns, and supporting them dynamically during these challenges makes 100% sense.
Whether it’s other countries with strong sequencing and study capacities immediately jumping in to help get the answers we all want today, like “does this ‘Nu’ variant break through vaccines”, or sending medical and economic support to countries which come forward, much needs to be done to encourage continued real time transparency.
Helping the world uncover new variants and save lives shouldn’t automatically mean economic ruin and lasting fear around the region.
I remember the feeling of being in the UK when the “UK variant” came out, and how unfair it felt with the stigmas, dogma and isolation that came from the discovery. It was already everywhere, and if not for the United Kingdom also having fantastic genomic sequencing like South Africa, much of the world wouldn’t have received warning.
South Africa wakes up today with nothing but sadness, as a new variant sparks fresh fear and inbound tourism slows to a halt. Yet, the robust scientific community in the country are heroes to the rest of the world.
If we’re ever going to get out of this, economic, healthcare and resource incentives must be introduced to countries discovering new variants of concern, otherwise they may stop being reported and the next true worry may only be discovered “too late”.