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The pandemic

It’s crazy to punish South Africa over omicron

A deserted beach in Durban during the first wave of the pandemic. Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa is paying a heavy price for “the good deed” of telling the world about the omicron variant, says Peter Coy in The New York Times. Many countries, including the UK and the US, are restricting air travel, pummelling South Africa’s already Covid-weakened economy. This sets a bad precedent. Dangerous variants need to be identified as early as possible so they can be contained while scientists investigate. If we punish those who reveal their existence, we’re only incentivising poor countries not to go looking, or to hide evidence if they find it.

“The solution is money.” The rest of the world should give South Africa a financial prize for its work in sequencing and reporting the new variant – big enough to “overcompensate” for the economic pain of a travel ban. The prize could be huge: $100bn would be decent value, given the trillions of dollars’ worth of damage Covid has caused to the global economy. Some “complications” would need to be worked out, of course. Would a private organisation be eligible, or only a country? And how would you stop unethical governments encouraging Covid to fester and mutate in order to increase their chances of finding new variants? For now, though, South Africa is the latest proof of the adage that “no good deed goes unpunished”.

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