130. COVID-19 and the Lure of “Extreme Nationalism”: From Canberra to Pretoria

Author: Adeoye O. Akinola
Date: 18 March 2021
Publication: Premium Times (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Geralt via Pixabay.com

On March 9, the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, used the virtual network meeting with global leaders and the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to reinforce his view on the resurgence of “extreme nationalism” across the globe since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. He rightly accused the wealthy countries of hoarding COVID-19 vaccines. This was not the first time that Ramaphosa had spoken out for Africa’s “voiceless” people. In January, amidst the “vaccines nationalism” becoming rampant across the globe, he repeatedly shared his disdain for the increasing hoarding of the vaccines and the gross inequality of access. Many European countries and other wealthy nations, including the United States, have been monopolising the distribution of the vaccines to the detriment of poorer countries. As Ramaphosa noted, wealthy countries have enormous buying power, while African countries, such as South Africa, are really struggling to negotiate for the required quantities of vaccines for their populations, particularly for their essential workers and older populations. Indeed, the scramble for COVID-19 vaccines has become one of the most divisive activities across the globe since the beginning of 2021.

As far back as January 28, Israel had already vaccinated 2.7 million of its 9.1 million citizens. By March 4, more than 245 million doses of the vaccine had already been administered across the world – approximately 78 million shots in the United States alone, based on an average of 1.74 million doses every day. In other words, approximately 15.4 per cent of the country’s population were vaccinated, after President Joe Biden’s promise to roll out 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office. On the other hand, on February 25, TimesLIVE reported that South Africa would have delivered vaccines for 1.1 million people – of a population of 59.8 million – by the end of March. By March 2, the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria, had received only 3.92 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for a population of about 200 million.

Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced extreme nationalism, unrestrained racism, and xenophobia. This trend has been prevalent in many societies, from advanced societies of the North to developing countries of the South. In the United Kingdom, right-wing extremism has heightened since the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the non-documentation of the hostilities against “others” in Australia, as early as May 2020, the Australian Human Rights Commissions noted an increase in cases of COVID-inspired discrimination against non-nationals. Some supermarkets and a few actors in the informal sectors had tried to absorb stranded international students and other foreigners who had lost their jobs or income without any hope of re-employment amidst the harsh economic realities resulting from the pandemic. The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, asked foreign citizens, particularly those on visiting visas, to leave the country to maximise the government’s economic support for Australians. Migrants were excluded from the government’s COVID-19 stimulus packages and more than two million people, who were on temporary visas, were advised by the government to leave the country if they had no means of sustaining themselves for a period of six months.

Neglecting the migrant community and refugees in a state’s economic stimulus programmes during the pandemic, and particularly during national lockdowns, constitutes subtle and institutional xenophobia. South Africa has a history of alienating migrants from its socio-economic space.

While President Ramaphosa should be lauded for his efforts on the democratisation of vaccines access, it is instructive to note the South African state demonstrated “economic and food nationalism” by excluding migrants in its COVID-19 economic support package of over R500 billion. Approximately 17 million South Africans, who were reliant on social grants, received an increase in their income – through a boost in child-support grants and an allocation of funds to support businesses – from government’s COVID-19 economic relief packages to ameliorate the economic burdens on citizens during the imposed lockdown. A survey by Stats South Africa revealed that, after the announcement of the lockdown, 82 per cent of migrant respondents had chosen to remain in South Africa, rather than return to their countries of origin, because they considered South Africa as their home.

Indeed, the idea of universal human rights is fast becoming a ruse. Both “vaccine nationalism” and economic nationalism defy humanitarian logic. Despite the spectre of economic and extreme nationalism during the pandemic as a result of the states’ meagre resources, ruling elites should begin to see the organic connections of “all who live in their countries”. After all, migrants are human beings who also deserve the right to sustain themselves during the complications brought about by COVID-19, such as the general job losses and a shrinking labour space for foreigners. Neglecting the migrant community and refugees in a state’s economic stimulus programmes during the pandemic, and particularly during national lockdowns, constitutes subtle and institutional xenophobia. South Africa has a history of alienating migrants from its socio-economic space. Currently, the slogan “South Africans First” has found its way back – strongly – into policymaking and public spheres. However, South Africa is not alone in manifesting xenophobia: other countries have also demonstrated these anti-migrant sentiments.

States that are riled by the vaccine inequality at the global level should not display institutional xenophobia by denying “all those who live within their borders” vaccination. However, it remains to be seen if African countries, particularly South Africa, will imbibe the principle of Ubuntu in its vaccination programmes.

Globalisation has failed to fulfil its “promise” to blur the inequality between the North and the South and to remove the walls of nationalism. There is something wrong with this “wildly consuming” international liberal order that keeps reinforcing extreme nationalism and inequality. States that are riled by the vaccine inequality at the global level should not display institutional xenophobia by denying “all those who live within their borders” vaccination. However, it remains to be seen if African countries, particularly South Africa, will imbibe the principle of Ubuntu in its vaccination programmes. Will migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, have access to the vaccines?

Just as “vaccine nationalism” constitutes what Timothy Ford and Charles Schwerk regard as “equity and social justice concerns”, racism and xenophobia (both subtle and violent), such as excluding non-nationals from governments’ COVID-19 economic stimulus packages, pose “equity and social justice concerns” in all its ramifications.

Adeoye O. Akinola is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.