In Defense of South Africa

Image Description: Myself (Anna) aged 18, on my first ever hike up Lion's Head. I have braided dark blond hair, a big smile, and my arms slightly outstretched in joy. Behind me is the city of Cape Town, Devil's Peak and Table Mountain.

“Fundamentally, there’s a mistaken belief by some countries that they can vaccinate their populations and they’ll be safe. That’s simply not true. In this world we live in with this coronavirus, no one is safe until everyone is safe. There is no end game that sees one country succeeding in controlling the virus while the rest of the world has rampant spread of the virus. That rampant spread is what’s going to create variants, those variants will be able to escape immunity every now and then, and so we get back to square one. So for me, the solution lies in ‘we all need to stand together’, not try and create islands where it’s suppressed, with rampant spread elsewhere.”

Prof Salim Abdul Karim, on Thursday April 15th’s Africa Daily Podcast from the BBC World Service

I must confess, I am struggling terribly with homesickness. I saw the wonderful Nadiya Hussain, in her programme The Chronicles of Nadiya, express something that I’ve often thought. Both British and Bangladeshi, Nadiya said ‘When I’m in Bangladesh I call England ‘home’, and when I’m in England I call Bangladesh ‘home’’. I do the same thing with England and South Africa. Thanks to the pandemic, pregnancy and early parenting, and a South African visa regime which has recently begun to exclude small business owners, I have now been in England for over a year. It is the longest I have been here for since I was seventeen, having gone to university in Scotland, and then having moved to Cape Town at age 23. Now that I’ve been in England for so long, it is abundantly clear to me that South Africa is home, and I’m desperate for my daughter to grow up there.

My homesickness is compounded by a couple of things. The first is that an inordinate number of TV advertisements for cars are filmed in Cape Town. One in particular on a freeway that I frequently drive on between my home and my shop! The second is the constant mention of ‘the South African variant’ in the news. I am finding myself increasingly defensive when such mention is made, and angry when I see the measures being taken which put South Africa at a serious disadvantage, and I’ll explain why I feel that way.

If you are from somewhere other than South Africa, and you and I were to play one of those word association games together, and I were to say ‘South African’, what would your association be? I am pretty sure that right now it would be ‘variant’. This is understandable given the way the media and many governments are speaking about variant B.1.351 or 501Y.V2. And let’s face it, ‘South African’ is a little more memorable than a jumble of letters and numbers. This current association feels terribly unfair to me.

South Africa has invested in genomic sequencing and has been open with its findings. The Beloved Country already had big public health challenges before covid-19. And we have a lot less money than most of the countries we rank alongside in terms of our sequencing and publishing efforts. So it’s pretty admirable and impressive that South Africa was willing to make such an investment, and a testament to the amazing culture of public health research and practise, and scientific skill in the country.

The fact that South Africa has been willing to be so open is to be further admired, because it has come at enormous cost. South African citizens are finding their international freedom of movement more heavily restricted than most, and tourists are thoroughly put off from visiting. There may be other variants out there emerging in countries who either cannot do or are not doing the necessary genomic sequencing, but because we don’t know about them, their economies are far less impacted. In other words, South Africa has been penalised for doing the right thing. That is never a good idea if we want people to keep doing the right thing.

The reason we know so much about how the B.1.351 variant responds to vaccines is that so many South Africans have volunteered for vaccine trials. Again, South Africa’s amazing public health infrastructure and a culture of volunteering for the common good is to be praised here. It is this that enables vaccine trials to be successful. Knowing how the vaccines respond to mutations is crucial knowledge at this time, and the world owes a debt of gratitude to South Africa for its investment in public health and its integrity.

So please do me a favour. Next time you hear someone refer to the ‘South African Variant’, suggest that they say ‘the variant first identified in South Africa’ instead. It isn’t as succinct, but it is more accurate. If you hear people say disparaging things, remind them that it is only because of South Africa’s public health community’s integrity that we know about it at all. If you can, put pressure on your government to cover the cost of quarantine for people arriving from South Africa (because it isn’t fair to be penalised for doing the right thing). And whatever ability you have to support the South African economy right now, whether it’s posting on social media about the amazing holiday you had, or about the great South African-made product that you use every day, or buying a bottle of Fairtrade South African wine, please do so. It makes a difference, and it lifts our spirits.


P.S. I’ve wanted to write this for a while and I’ve hesitated. Mostly because I really don’t like writing anything without spending a few hours doing research first. It feels wrong! What I’ve written here is based on lots of listening to scientific podcasts, and talking to friends who work in medicine. Hardly the gold standard for research! Nevertheless, as a busy single mum running a small business from the other side of the world during a pandemic, time isn’t really something I have a lot of! And I really felt that I needed to express these thoughts. If you do know of sources of more information, or just other things on this topic that you think I should read or listen to, please do send them to me if you have the time. I will update this piece accordingly.