Worry, disappointment among Ottawa's African community as new variant emerges

·2 min read
People line up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. (Jerome Delay/AP Photo - image credit)
People line up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. (Jerome Delay/AP Photo - image credit)

Members of Ottawa's African community say they want the Canadian government to do more to support vaccination efforts in Africa and around the world as a new COVID-19 variant alarms public health experts.

On Friday, the federal government barred all foreign nationals who had travelled through seven southern African countries in the past two weeks from entering Canada after the World Health Organization declared the omicron variant a variant of concern.

"You see the consequences of the failure to vaccinate the rest of the world," said Godlove Ngwafusi, a spokesperson for the African Canadian Association of Ottawa.

"There's proof in the pudding right there that it would have been more cost effective to ensure that everybody —everybody around the world — were vaccinated."

Mathieu Theriault/CBC
Mathieu Theriault/CBC

Scientists are alarmed by the omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa last week, because it has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein it uses to enter human cells — more than double the mutations of the delta variant that currently makes up the bulk of cases in Canada.

Mfana Cele, president of the South African Rainbow Association of Ottawa, said omicron shows why wealthy countries, like Canada, should do more to support global vaccination efforts.

"People of African descent, and Africa for that matter, can't help but feel that once again we've been marginalized," he said.

"It's a little disappointing that you have countries like Canada that are already talking about a third vaccination when some countries might not even have had their first."

Boosters a 'luxury'

Omicron has intensified calls in Canada for expanding access to COVID-19 booster shots.

The United States, United Kingdom and Israel have made booster shots widely available, and some Canadian provinces have followed their lead. Ontario has so far only expanded eligibility for high-risk Ontarians but is eyeing an early 2022 rollout for full eligibility.

WATCH | What's known about the omicron variant

A spokesperson for the National Advisory Committee on Immunization told CBC News on Saturday there is currently no evidence of decreasing vaccine efficacy in the general Canadian population, but the committee will update advice on preventive booster doses, if needed.

"If we're going to be talking booster shots in Canada, that's a luxury," said Ngwafusi. "It's a luxury when you consider that the rest of the world has not been vaccinated yet."

Hector Addison, with the African Canadian Association of Ottawa, said he recognizes the need for booster shots in Canadians who are elderly or have compromised immune systems.

"But that shouldn't stop the government from also supporting other countries to help their residents to get their first shot," he said.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government announced it was doubling its contribution to the COVAX alliance, to $440 million, to help deliver vaccines to low and middle-income countries.

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