It’s a bit embarrassing to admit it publicly, but as soon as I got off the plane in Calgary, I walked straight up to Tim Hortons.
Worse yet, I snapped a photo of my large coffee – tres leches, no sugar – and posted it to my Instagram stories with a pink banner that read “Home Sweet Home.”
In my defense, I slept little during 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 post immediately.
“Welcome back! I got home just before the ban.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Unbeknownst to me, although my plane had probably been somewhere in Europe, South African officials had announced the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus, since dubbed Omicron, and were racing to discover its implications.
As I would soon learn, I had slipped under the wire, before the sweeping border closures ordered by politicians scared at 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 wave of COVID-19 punishment.
It was also shown that 20 months after this, we are not in this together.
If anything, Omicron has finally forced the world to heed what global health advocates have been shouting from the rooftops for a year: that if vaccines are not shared, the new variants that will emerge surely will be.
It is possible to draw a straight line between the appearance of new variants and the stripes of people around the world who are not vaccinated: each infected person allows the virus to have a new chance to mutate. It was Canada and other wealthy countries that bought most of the world’s vaccine supply, and only now are they beginning to think about giving away some of that.
In recent weeks, I have toured Angola, South Africa, and Namibia as part of an upcoming project on global vaccine equity that was funded by the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Grant, a Canadian media grant in memory of a foreign veteran. reporter who firmly believed in the need for reporters to witness what was happening in the world.
Perhaps the most significant border I crossed upon returning home was the one between the unvaccinated and the vaccinated world. About six percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, compared to about 75 percent of Canadians. If Omicron turns out to be more spreadable or more virulent, again, these are not things we currently know, it could cause a new storm in Canada, but a tsunami elsewhere.
Requests for border restrictions come from familiar corners, including Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford, who called for even those who arrive before a ban is in place be screened and quarantined.
On Friday, the federal government announced that the borders would be closed to travelers from a handful of southern African countries.
In the hours after the new rules were announced, I called the provincial health hotline in Alberta, where I live, which then referred me to the ArriveCAN helpline, the app travelers should now use to attest to their vaccination or proof status upon entering the country.
None of the people who responded had any idea what he was talking about. “Could you explain to me what you have heard about Africa?” asked a well-meaning employee. I was advised to send an email to an address from which I did not receive a response.
Things cleared up over the weekend. On Saturday, two days after my arrival, I received a call from a federal evaluator who told me that she had been randomly selected for the regular COVID traveler screening program, unrelated to South Africa, she said, and wanted to know if she would. . I did my first test.
The only problem was, no one had told me this at the airport, so my exams would have to be mailed to me first to take home.
However, she was familiar with the new policies in South Africa and said that it was recommended that I be quarantined, but that as a vaccinated traveler, it was not mandatory for me.
That night, I received an email from the province, recommending that I self-quarantine and get a PCR test, which, thankfully, I was able to do at a Calgary drive-in in a matter of hours. The province also offered to send me some rapid antigen tests, so that I could continue to be examined while I waited for isolation time.
It wasn’t until Monday, four days after I returned, that they called me to say that the quarantine for the remaining 10 days was now mandatory.
To state the obvious, international travel, even when there is no global pandemic, is a luxury.
It’s a mark of privilege that not only was able to evade border closures, see New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen. Twitter feed to see what happened when he left the mainland just a bit later, but as I write this, I’m wearing fuzzy socks in my home office, while the new variant of the virus spins dark clouds over millions of unvaccinated people.
Back in South Africa, the widespread sentiment on social media is that the country has been the scapegoat for doing its job in detecting a variant while work continues to determine where it originated, possibly even in another country.
Kate Stegeman, who called from Cape Town at 10 p.m. local time, after a hectic weekend that felt like a jump back in time to the early days of the pandemic, looked tired Monday.
Stegeman advocates and advocates for the Doctors Without Borders campaign for access to vaccines and medicines in Africa, saying that while much of the world worries, many skilled scientists from South Africa are racing to find out what the variant means.
“We need to wait for more data. We have to wait for COVAX to deliver its doses. We have to wait for the doses to be redistributed. We have to wait for the intellectual property to be given up. We have to wait for the technology to transfer, ”he says, and sighs. “It has been incredibly exhausting.
“It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed sometimes.”
the clip currently being widely shared on South African social media and WhatsApp groups there is a BBC interview with Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Alliance.
Hands clasped under her chin, Alakija doesn’t beat around the bush 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 up and thrown the key away.”
Despite Canada’s efforts, Omicron’s arrival here was confirmed shortly after I got off the plane.
Now a world divided between those with vaccine protection and those without waiting to see what happens next.