The hidden victims of the South African shutdown

8 December 2021

5:52 AM

8 December 2021

5:52 AM

I sit in a National Park in South Africa, looking at an empty restaurant in which a robust staff, hired on for the peak international travel season, stand idle and bored. Many will likely be let go next week as the tourism declines yet again. Many were out of work for a year and only just hired back.

The ripple effect of the latest travel shutdown is felt immediately here. Many parks in Southern Africa lost 80 percent of funding through the last shutdown, which in South Africa was one of the most severe. We work here with the Rangers, tasked with protecting the last great population of rhino and elephant, and they cannot afford boots, let alone salaries to pay the staff who work without pause.

Corruption is rising — desperate locals have no choice but to take money for illicit activity, and the Asian-backed syndicates are only to eager to exploit them. Defensive capabilities evaporate as criminal activity is bolstered. It’s a disastrous formula.  We are told the current numbers project that the rhino will be extinct in nine years due to this hit.

Four months ago I asked a park official what hope he had for the rhino. “Very little,” he told me. “Unless the UK opens travel.”

The plight of the rhino is just one global ripple effect from the Covid shutdowns that to many in Southern Africa and other developing countries feels now like modern medical imperialism.

The lightning-fast global travel restriction proceeding from the news of the Omicron variant has cast a pallor here and desperation is in many voices.  After a year of loss of income, increased crime and destruction of communities, businesses and families in South Africa and surrounding countries were just getting back on their feet. The welfare afforded Americans and other first-world citizens when their livelihood was cut off is not an option here; there is no money to pay out, no bailouts for restaurants and “non-essential” businesses.

“We are punished for being first of the third world,” another friend tells me here. “We have provided research for pandemics around Africa for decades. We’re very good at this, and we identify this new variant and they shut us down for it.” You might think that next time, they simply won’t share the discovery with the world.

Last week President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would not lock down further due to Omicron. This is a defiance of the first world which has branded South Africa as some kind of leper in the international community that must be cast out, avoided and shamed. That is that attitude shared by many that I speak to here.

Within an hour of the shutdown announcement, which came with no warning, our photographer lost four months of work. Our travel agent Wendy Addendorf was up all hours two nights in a row facilitating cancellations for all of her international clients, her agency just beginning again to thrive. A huge portion of the South African economy relies on tourism and international revenue.

From the initial reports that this variant would defy vaccines and cause increased hospitalization, evidence within twenty-four hours claimed otherwise. The slap against southern Africa was harsh, sudden and by most estimations wildly dramatic.

The ripple effects are more than immediate. Clients like our photographer’s don’t just cancel plans; they begin to invest in other sites, other countries that aren’t likely to face travel restrictions. Tourism dollars will be spent elsewhere; why continue to book here if there’s a likelihood of your plans being canceled, or worse, a chance your family could become stuck? Our only flight availability is in ten days; we can’t move before then.  At least we are able to work, and face no emergency back home.

South Africa is just one country facing this crisis. Malawi Airlines went bankrupt and all movement was shutdown for a while. Eighty percent of the Malawian economy is built on international aid and revenue of some kind. Tourism ceasing in Botswana and Zimbabwe means mass unemployment and infrastructure erosion. South Africa depends on skilled seasonal agriculture workers bringing home pay from working in the US, Australia and other places.

Our teams traveled to Southern Africa every month during the pandemic — we refused to stop serving wildlife Rangers, even if it meant changing planes twice when no direct flights were available. Most didn’t push through. Rangers we work with are desperate, lonely, isolated and depressed.  The first world has not only forgotten them, through global travel policies, it is actively destroying their lives.

Whatever the justification for restricting travel and commerce, the effect on the third world seems to be completely left out of the calculus. First-world decision making has a dramatic effect on developing nations; a specific tragedy particularly in the face of the frontline role that countries like South Africa play in combating and researching global pandemics.

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