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Opinion: I'm shocked by the racist cartoons and travel bans sparked by omicron

An excerpt of an apology made by <em>Bangkok Post</em> on Dec. 4. The Thai media outlet apologized for using racist language in a headline on a Dec. 2 story about the omicron variant. The headline read, "Government hunts for African visitors."
Screenshot by NPR
An excerpt of an apology made by <em>Bangkok Post</em> on Dec. 4. The Thai media outlet apologized for using racist language in a headline on a Dec. 2 story about the omicron variant. The headline read, "Government hunts for African visitors."

Editor's Note: Warning, some of these images contain racist and offensive content.

Part of me can't believe that editors reviewed and approved and published racist headlines and cartoons about the highly contagious omicron variant, first detected in Botswana and South Africa.

But another part of me can believe it.

On Nov. 28, the Spanish newspaper La Tribuna de Albacete published a comic depicting the omicron variants as cartoon characters with brown skin and nappy hair, packed in a boat marked with a South African flag and approaching land with a European Union flag waving on its shores. On the same day, the German newspaper Die Rheinpfalz published a front-page story with the headline "The virus from Africa is with us," accompanied by a photo of two Black Africans. And on Dec. 2, a Bangkok Post headline read, "Government hunts for African visitors."

The coverage was met with global outcry, particularly from Africans. In reaction to the Spanish cartoon, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted: "It pains me that shows of racism like this still plague the challenges facing the world today. Caricaturing people crammed in a boat bringing a virus to Europe is disgusting."

South African politician Mmusi Maimane also posted on Twitter, writing, "the omicron response from the international community has exposed deep-seated, anti-Africa sentiment."

Since publication, all three outlets have issued public apologies.

On Nov. 30, La Tribuna published an editorial note: "There has been no intention on the part of the cartoonist to link the transmission of the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with positions that deviate from the principles of equality and nondiscrimination."

On Nov. 29, the editor-in-chief of Die Rheinpfalz wrote a letter to readers saying there were "no excuses for the mistake" of their headline.

And on Dec. 4, Bangkok Post followed suit, saying the outlet "had absolutely no intention of conveying what might have been regarded as discriminatory or racist language" — in particular, the use of the verb "hunt."

While I think it's good that all three outlets apologized, it's mind-boggling that these headlines and comics were even published at all. But alas, they are not without precedent. As a health advocate and a doctor from Nigeria, I have been writing about the global inequities brought on by the pandemic for nearly a year now.

In January, I wrote how the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by Western nations made lower-resource nations like mine feel invisible. In June, I wrote how I couldn't enter Europe because the vaccine I took – widely used in low- and middle-income countries — wasn't on the Europe's list of approved vaccines.

And now, here I am again writing about COVID-19-related inequities.

Travel bans add insult to injury

More alarming than the news headlines are the policies by several Western or wealthy nations to ban travelers from Africa as a way to stem the spread of this variant. This action is an unscientific kneejerk reaction that will have severe economic consequences for African countries struggling to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

In the U.S., the Biden administration began restricting travel for non-U.S. citizens from eight southern African nations on Nov. 29.

In the U.K., 11 African countries were added to its "red list" — places defined as high risk for new and emerging strains of coronavirus, with testing and quarantine requirements for arrivals.

But Canada has gone above and beyond. Not only has it banned foreign travelers from Botswana, Egypt, eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe from entering Canada, it is requiring Canadian citizens who have been in those countries to obtain a negative COVID molecular test from "a third country." So, a test from South Africa, for example, won't count.

This tweet from Steven Thrasher, chair of social justice reporting at Northwestern University, best sums up my thoughts on the matter: "Canada believes that while South Africa has a sophisticated enough public health infrastructure to sequence a new SARS variant before any other country, it still can't be trusted to administer an accurate PCR test."

The travel restrictions by Western nations have incited condemnations from African leaders and the global health community.

At a news conference last week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aptly described the bans as "travel apartheid."

Both the discriminatory bans on African travelers by Western nations and the overtly racist headlines from the global media remind me of the discrimination of that era. Africans should not be punished and racially profiled for showing scientific rigor and sincerity in managing this pandemic.

I am scared this rhetoric could spark xenophobic attacks on myself and other Africans. It is easy for some in the West to label Africans as the problem, that we are the carriers of the omicron variant and the ones who are stopping them from living their lives pre-COVID.

'Let the West do the right thing'

I am reminded of an important phrase from my Igbo tribe in Nigeria: Ìgwèbụ̀íké. It means "we are stronger together when we are united." To end this pandemic, we must work together. There is no room for racism.

So let us be guided by the words of the great Nelson Mandela: "When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis? Or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?"

Let the West do the right thing: be fair and truthful in their reporting. And unban all African countries and introduce stricter entry requirements for all travelers. Omicron knows no borders.

Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor is the senior vice president for Africa at Human Health Education and Research Foundation. He is a senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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