I returned to Canada from southern Africa just before the Omicron travel ban. Nobody knew what to do with me – .

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I returned to Canada from southern Africa just before the Omicron travel ban. Nobody knew what to do with me – .


It’s slightly embarrassing to publicly admit, but as soon as I got off the plane in Calgary, I walked straight into Tim Hortons.

Worse yet, I took a photo of my tall coffee – three milks, no sugar – and posted it on my Instagram Stories with a flashing pink “Home Sweet Home” banner.

In my defense, I had little sleep on the return trip from a three-week reporting trip to southern Africa, and the cafes outside of North America are very, very small.

A former colleague responded to my message immediately.

” Happy to see you again! I got home just before the flight bans.

I had no idea what he was talking about. Unbeknownst to me, while my plane had likely been somewhere over Europe, South African officials announced the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus, since dubbed Omicron, and were rushing to find out its implications.

As I will soon learn, I had slipped under the thread, before the massive border closures ordered by politicians frightened by the prospect of an improved version of the virus.

It bears repeating that there are still many questions about Omicron that need to be answered, but, at the very least, the variant has raised the specter of a new punitive wave of COVID-19.

It also showed that 20 months after we started this thing, we are really not in the same boat.

On the contrary, Omicron has finally forced the world to pay attention to what global health advocates have been screaming from the rooftops for a year – that if vaccines aren’t shared, the new variants that will emerge certainly will.

It is possible to draw a straight line between the emergence of new variants and the number of unvaccinated people around the world – each infected person giving the virus a new chance to mutate. It was Canada and other wealthy countries that bought most of the world’s vaccine supply, and are only now beginning to consider donating some.

Over the past few weeks, I have traveled through Angola, South Africa and Namibia on an upcoming Global Vaccine Equity Project which was funded by R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship, a Canadian media fellowship in memory of a longtime foreign journalist who firmly believed in the need for journalists to bear witness to what was happening in the world.

Perhaps the most important border I crossed on my way home was between the unvaccinated world and the vaccinated. About six percent of Africans are fully immunized, compared to about 75 percent of Canadians. If Omicron turns out to be more transmissible or more virulent – again, which we currently don’t know – it could trigger another storm in Canada, but a tsunami elsewhere.

Calls for border restrictions have come from familiar corners, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford, who have called for even those who arrive before a ban goes into effect be tested and quarantined.

On Friday, the federal government announced that the borders would effectively be closed to travelers from a handful of southern African countries.

Within hours of the new rules being announced, I called the provincial health helpline in Alberta, where I live, who then referred me to the helpline for ArriveCAN, the app that travelers must now use to certify their vaccination or test status when entering the country.

None of the people who responded had a clue what I was talking about. “Can you please explain to me what you heard about Africa? Asked a well-meaning staff member. I was advised to send an email to an address from which I received no response.

Things cleared up over the weekend. On Saturday, two days after arriving, I received a call from a federal screening officer who told me I had been randomly selected for the regular, unrelated COVID traveler screening program. from the South, she said, and wanted to know if I was going to take my first test.

The only problem was that no one told me this at the airport, so my takeout tests had to be mailed to me first.

She was however aware of the new South African policies and said quarantine was recommended but as a vaccinated traveler it was not mandatory for me.

That evening I received an email from the province recommending that I quarantine and take a PCR test, which luckily I was able to do at a Calgary drive-in site. in a few hours. The province also offered to send me quick antigen tests, so I could continue testing myself while I waited for the isolation clock to end.

It wasn’t until Monday, four days after my return, that I was called to say that quarantine for the remaining 10 days was now mandatory.

To state the obvious, international travel, even in the absence of a global pandemic, is a luxury.

It’s a mark of privilege that not only was I able to escape border closures – check New York Times reporter on global health, Stephanie Nolen Twitter feed for a glimpse into what happened when she left the mainland a bit later – but as I type this I’m wearing fluffy socks in my home office as the new virus variant spins dark clouds above millions of unvaccinated people.

Back in South Africa, the general feeling on social media is that the country has been singled out as a scapegoat for doing its job of detecting a variant as the work continues to determine its origin, including, perhaps to be, in another country.

Calling from Cape Town at 10 p.m. local time, after a hectic weekend that felt like stepping back in time to the early days of the pandemic, Kate Stegeman looked tired on Monday.

Stegeman is an advocate and policy maker for Médecins Sans Frontières’ campaign for access to vaccines and medicines in Africa and says that while much of the world is concerned, many skilled scientists in South Africa rush to find out what the variant means.

“We have to wait to get more data. We have to wait for COVAX to deliver its doses. It is necessary to wait until the doses are redistributed. We have to wait until intellectual property is abandoned. We have to wait until the technology is transferred, ”she said with a sigh. “It was incredibly tiring.

“It’s hard not to feel a little disillusioned sometimes. “

The clip currently widely circulated on South African social media and in WhatsApp groups is a BBC interview with Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Alliance.

With her hands clasped under her chin, Alakija doesn’t mince words about what many people see as the injustice of travel bans.

“If the first SARS COV-2 virus, the one that was first identified in China last year, had originated in Africa, it is now clear that the world would have locked us in and threw away the key. “

Despite Canada’s best efforts, Omicron’s arrival here was confirmed shortly after I got off the plane.

Now a world divided between those who have vaccine protection and those who don’t wait to see what happens next.



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