Omicron, Evolution, and Africa: the predictable result of ignorance and white supremacy

A new variant has arisen, and with it a new wave of anti-vax nonsense, and a new reminder that colonialism (or whatever you want to call its modern incarnation) is a danger to all of us. Because of the international response to the discovery of the Omicron variant, I wanted to dig into several topics that I see converging here.

First, the relatively simple stuff: vaccine misinformation. There’s one line in particular that I think is going to end up sticking around if we’re not careful, and to me it stems from a partial understanding of how evolution works. In particular, it’s an “understanding” I’ve seen in a few different video games and TV shows, probably driven by Herbert Spencer’s twisting of natural selection to mean “survival of the fittest” in a colloquial sense. The idea goes like this – if you want to grow and evolve, you have to put yourself in increasingly difficult situations so that you’ll be forced to become stronger in order to survive. To borrow a hypothetical from Abigail Thorn’s excellent video on Darwin and Marx, if you wanted to create a species of wooly mice, you just take a population of ordinary house mice, and drop them off in the middle of Baffin Island, then wait a few generations. Come back, and you’ve got a new species of mice evolved to deal with extreme cold, right?

Wrong. You’ve probably got a bunch of dead, frozen mice. More likely, you’ve got none of that, because those mice were probably eaten in the first generation or two. To evolve a new trait, you need more than just the pressure to change, you also need to have a population capable of surviving that pressure for enough generations to actually take advantage of any cold-adaptive mutations that might arise. Without that stable population pool to throw new generations against the harsh conditions, even if a mouse were to win the genetic lottery and get a mutation that gave them thicker fur, if there’s not a population of mice to breed with, that one mouse variant will still die out, because it was alone, and a singular organism cannot a new species make.

So. COVID variants. As I said before, there are some people who believe that new variants- and in particular the dreaded vaccine-resistant variant -come about because by introducing vaccines, we are creating a challenge for the virus to overcome, and so we’re “training” it to be vaccine resistant. What this misses, of course, is that in order for the virus to be able to get around vaccines, it needs to have a large un-vaccinated population to keep generating new variants to try. While none of the vaccines seem to give total immunity, they do dramatically reduce both symptom severity (which mean fewer deaths and fewer Long Haul COVID patients), and transmissibility. That last bit is what we care about when it comes to evolution. A virus like COVID has a time limit for each person it infects. Once it gets a foothold in our bodies, it will replicate and spread as much as it can before our immune system fights it off, or before we die.

Let’s imagine we have a single unvaccinated person. That person catches COVID. Regardless of the severity of the disease, that person will expose everyone near them to the virus they’re hosting. If everyone near them is also unvaccinated, most of them will also get sick, with their own time limits, infect other people in turn, and so on. As the virus replicates in each new person, it is also changing, at least a little. The more people have the disease, the more likely it is that one of those people will play host to a new variant. If, on the other hand, the people surrounding our first patient are all vaccinated, whatever variant the infected person has will die when that infection ends. If there’s a breakthrough case, then we have another patient, who is also surrounded by people with a high resistance, and once again, the virus faces a massive barrier to its survival beyond that patient.

To COVID, a population that’s 95% vaccinated is like Baffin Island to our ill-fated population of southern mice. It’s hypothetically possible for those mice to survive, and if they do, it’s possible that they will evolve new traits, but even if they do manage to have two or three generations, the change will be very slow, and it might only take one bad winter to wipe them out and end the experiment.

If you take a less vaccinated population, it’s more like starting your new mouse population in one of the human communities on the island, where they’re more likely to find food and shelter to help them survive. That population is then regularly dispersing new mice into the areas surrounding their “home base”, increasing the odds that one will have the thick fur needed to thrive, and will pass that along to future generations, moving us toward our goal of wooly mice.

Or brought back out of the hypothetical, the unvaccinated become “variant factories”:

Unvaccinated people do more than merely risk their own health. They’re also a risk to everyone if they become infected with coronavirus, infectious disease specialists say.

That’s because the only source of new coronavirus variants is the body of an infected person.

“Unvaccinated people are potential variant factories,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN Friday.

“The more unvaccinated people there are, the more opportunities for the virus to multiply,” Schaffner said. “When it does, it mutates, and it could throw off a variant mutation that is even more serious down the road.”

All viruses mutate, and while the coronavirus is not particularly mutation-prone, it does change and evolve.

Most of the changes mean nothing to the virus, and some can weaken it. But sometimes, a virus develops a random mutation that gives it an advantage — better transmissibility, for instance, or more efficient replication, or an ability to infect a great diversity of hosts.

Viruses with an advantage will outcompete other viruses, and will eventually make up the majority of virus particles infecting someone. If that infected person passes the virus to someone else, they’ll be passing along the mutant version.

If a mutant version is successful enough, it becomes a variant.

But it has to replicate to do that. An unvaccinated person provides that opportunity.

“As mutations come up in viruses, the ones that persist are the ones that make it easier for the virus to spread in the population,” Andrew Pekosz, a microbiologist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN.

“Every time the viruses changes, that gives the virus a different platform to add more mutations. Now we have viruses that spread more efficiently.”
Viruses that don’t spread cannot mutate.

This is not new information. We’ve known all this for a long time, which is why there has been concern from the beginning of this pandemic about the danger presented by vaccine hoarding. For all the U.S. likes to pretend that Trump was a massive outlier in his nationalism, the reality is that all administrations in living memory have taken a largely “America First”-style approach to foreign policy, which has in turn created poverty, violence, and political instability in poor countries around the world. To varying degrees, this is true of all colonial powers – the essential dynamic of extracting wealth from foreign countries never went away, it just changed form. As colonies gained their “independence”, they found themselves deliberately under-developed, and stripped of wealth and natural resources. Most of them, in an attempt to rebuild from centuries of oppression and plundering, agreed to take on loans either from their former colonizers, or from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

These loans generally come with conditions restricting the kinds of development on which that money can be spent. Countries with natural resources were told that because the infrastructure to make goods out of those resources already existed in other countries, it would be a “waste” to build them in the former colonies, so instead those colonies had to ship out their raw or partially processed materials, and then buy back the products made from them.

Some countries have asserted their sovereignty, and insisted that they should be able to profit from building those products themselves, rather than buying back their own natural resources at a markup, have been punished. The 1953 coup in Iran was over oil. The recent coup in Bolivia followed the decision to use Bolivian lithium deposits to make products like batteries, and sell those to the world, rather than simply selling the lithium to foreign corporations.

The continent of Africa was almost certainly the hardest-hit by the brutality of colonialism. The Atlantic slave trade depopulated many areas along Africa’s western coast, and colonies set up by European powers saw generations of slavery, brutal violence, and genocide, as well as deliberate under-development and under-education. The loans offered by colonial powers have not just been used to force Africans to buy foreign products made from their natural resources, they’ve even forced countries like Ghana to choose between loans, and taking care of their own food production:

Africans today live in extreme poverty and hunger while most western corporations continue to flourish based on the control of resources and markets they do not own. Therefore, if Africa wants to count its enemies, there can only be three supposed ones; The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. To further explain the structure and mechanics behind this mass destructive strategy of those three organizations, let us take Ghana as a case study.

Ghana is one of the countries with abundant natural resources. The resources are so much that the whole country could have been catered for without any external help since the country size is fairly small.

Some years back, rice farming towns in the northern part of Ghana were thriving. This was because these communities enjoyed subsidies (such as free subsidies fertilizers) from the Ghana government so as to produce rice on the large scale for the whole nation. Ghana back then witnessed abundant rice production where the people only enjoyed their locally produced rice.

However, the IMF and the World Bank came in and as part of their policies, the institutions would not grant the government of Ghana any more loans unless the subsidies being given to the rice farmers were cut off.

The strategy was to force Ghana into rice importation from the partners of the IMF and the World Bank including the USA. The effect we see is that Ghana now imports almost all the rice eaten in the country at huge prices while the rice farming communities in the country starve to death!

Because of this imposed poverty, and the extreme economic toll of epidemics, most African countries have prioritized their healthcare infrastructure, and many have developed a capacity to detect, assess, and respond to new diseases that far exceeds anything in wealthier nations. That is why it should not be a surprise that Botswana first detected the Omicron COVID variant. It is also why the international stereotype of Africa as poor and “backwards” (which generally ignores the historical factors that led to present conditions) is so harmful. Most people in the United States, and in Europe probably don’t know how far ahead of us many African nations are when it comes to dealing with infectious diseases, in every way that doesn’t require the resources they have been denied. Absent a knowledge of the history and material conditions creating Africa’s poverty, a lot of white people – even well-meaning ones – tend to default to the white supremacist narratives about race that pervade “Western” societies. Those narratives lead people to blame Africans for conditions that have been externally imposed upon the continent, and so to justify responding to disease outbreaks by basically locking up the whole continent, and focusing less on saving African lives, and more on letting the outbreak run its course without leaving Africa.

Which brings us back to the Omicron variant, and the international response to Botswana doing exactly what they were supposed to as responsible members of the world community, who are at the cutting edge of virus detection. Travel bans for Africa, despite the variant being detected in multiple other countries around the world.

I think it’s worth repeating: We don’t know where the Omicron variant came from. It had probably been circulating for at least a couple weeks before it was detected, and it has been spotted in multiple countries. It would be one thing for the US and nations like it to cut off all international travel, as Israel did, but the US (which has maintained its lead as the country with the most confirmed cases, even compared to bigger countries like India and China) chose to cut off travel to seven African nations, but not the UK, the Netherlands, or other countries that had detected the variant.

Further, it’s worth considering the impact of a travel ban. Because of the things I talked about earlier, a lot of African economies rely heavily on tourism from former colonial powers. Cutting off travel means cutting off a large amount of income to countries that are already struggling. Doing that to African nations and not European nations highlights the systemic devaluation of African lives that seems to be the default among colonial powers. This also shows up in the phenomenon of vaccine hoarding, which was a problem that we saw coming long before the vaccines were available. It’s a problem that did not need to exist. Removing intellectual property restrictions would allow African countries to manufacture their own vaccines, dramatically improving their ability to fight the pandemic, saving countless people, and reducing the chances of variants developing there in the future.

But as we’ve seen, profit comes before human life in global capitalism, and that goes double for black lives. It’s pretty clear that in the unlikely event that COVID is brought under control in the rest of the world, Africa will just be sealed off and ignored right up until a new variant leaves the continent, at which point they’ll be blamed for it. Pandemics are, by definition, global problems. They require global solutions. These nationalistic policies and self-serving half-measures are extending the pandemic far beyond what was unavoidable.

As with any other discussion of racism, there’s the problem of people assuming that unless they’re given a signed statement of racist motivation, there’s some “good reason” for a policy that is racist in impact. The reality is that deliberate malice – while it exists – is not required for the creation of bigoted, harmful policies. All that’s needed is a lack of concern for the harm those policies will do to the group in question. You could argue that vaccine hoarding or travel bans are due to an abundance of concern for the wellbeing of the countries doing that, but only if you also assume that the people responsible don’t know the damage their policies will do, and aren’t aware of the inconsistency in which countries are affected. We know that is not the case.

The leadership of wealthy nations and of pharmaceutical corporations all have access to more information than any other leaders at any point in history. They know better, they just don’t want to do better, because in this capitalist hellworld, profit matters more than anything; and white supremacy, as a central part of capitalism from its inception, is built into the global economic infrastructure.

As I keep saying, we need global solidarity if we’re going to survive climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a horrifying “trial run” of how the crises of a warming world will play out under the current power structure. Poor and working people are expendable, and Africa’s only value is in the wealth and entertainment it can generate for the ruling classes of the wealthy nations that manufactured and maintain the poverty of African people.

We are entering a period of unprecedented chaos and upheaval. Our planet is headed for temperatures beyond human experience, and at the same time, pollution and unsustainable resource use are leading us to multiple health, resource, and ecological crises. If we are to adapt to this new world we’re creating, we’re going to need to work together. Returning to the hypothetical of the wooly mouse, we’ve all been put into an alien climate, and we need to take care of our existing population as a species to ensure that we’ll have the time and numbers to survive and thrive.

Fight white supremacy. Fight bigotry. Organize and train to build collective power. Look for opportunities to practice solidarity with both the people around you, and with people on the other side of the world.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.


  1. xohjoh2n says

    Well, you kind of went near this thesis but didn’t actually mention it, but…

    The southern Africa source hypothesis is plausible not just because that was the first notification, but also because (as has been said) it looks like the extra-mutational nature of the variant may be down to maturing within an immune compromised person, such as a HIV infected person.

    Not early, since they would likely mount a normal defense, nor late as it would likely kill them quickly before it could mutate significantly. But that goldilocks zone in the middle where they can’t eliminate it entirely, but survive long enough to present a gentle ongoing challenge for just long enough…

    And *that* is also a chicken-roosting scenario for the west as we’ve always had this weird moralistic attitude to the disease: it’s all your fault for getting it and you deserve everything you get, and it can’t affect the Pure And Innocent. Except that’s never actually been true. And also ignores the practical effect of disproportionately knocking out a large section of the productive working population of countries where the antivirals aren’t generally affordable. Now we have an additional splash factor: it also provides a large population of incubators for a disease that *can* come right back at you. So maybe we ought to have been a little more generous about HIV treatment worldwide…?

  2. says

    “Do you want to know the facts or do you just want to argue,” is a question we need to hold onto when discussing the issues you being up. The shrill voices aren’t interested in facts. You have laid out clearly the outcome, so far, of our race-long experiment of Cain-like behavior. Am I my brother’s keeper? Why should in be concerned about my brother’s welfare?

  3. says

    Friend Abe Drayton, thank you for this important alert to the part played by systemic racism in the etiology of new variants of the COVID pandemic, and in particular the racism of the decision-makers who decide who’s “important” enough to get the vaccine. But as I wrote in my blog-posting “Plan C: World Repentance” seven years ago (, “Scapegoating of designated ‘destroyers of the earth’ is not reasonable, though it may be widely resorted to.” If you repent and I repent of all our hard-heartedness toward our fellow creatures, eventually a spirit of repentance may percolate into the gated communities where the CEOs of Big Pharma live. As I concluded in “Plan C,” “Maybe it’s not too late to save the earth after all, if the world’s leaders repent! _But there will be no repentance of world leaders unless we world citizens take the initiative and go first._”

  4. says

    @John Jeremiah Edminster

    I prefer a more materialistic approach that doesn’t rely on common beliefs and what seems like a vague hope. While I do feel the desire to see certain people punished for the unimaginable horrors they have wrought, that’s secondary to removing their ability to continue destroying lives with such reckless abandon.

    Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding your comment, but to me, your plan requires far more hard-heartedness than anything I’ve ever come up with, including monuments naming and condemning the likes of the Koch Brothers or Mitch MccCnnell. You are asking me to watch the suffering of billions, and do nothing to stop that suffering beyond… “repentance”? You want me to tell those I love to just repent and hope that “repentance energy” gets to a bunch of people who’ve demonstrated their willingness to kill for a dollar?

    No. No thank you. You may be content with wishful thinking as a strategy, but I cannot be. I have no interest in starting a war, but the reality is that war is the default state of the world at this point, and those in power have shown they can sleep perfectly well, so long as they retain their power.

    Organize, train, and build collective power. Become ungovernable. Don’t just sit back and watch your fellow humans bleed and die.

  5. says

    hi, a great post is engendering a great discussion.
    I do think perhaps you’ve misunderstood John’s comment.
    At bottom, the question is one of values — as you point out when you say that “those in power have shown they can sleep perfectly well, so long as they retain their power.” If the value is to preserve some kind of privilege, then arguments will always be shifted or twisted to serve that end. The commitment to maintaining something like the status quo in the West is surrounded by a haze of attitudes that are rooted in the fear of confronting the realization that one’s alliance with the dominant means being willing to watch people die and suffer if that’s what it takes to maintain the system of privilege. That’s the “region” of ideology in which people shift to utilitarian arguments — as I first realized during the Vietnam era, when SO MANY people objected to the war because it was too expensive, or costing too many lives, etc.; or objected to the Civil Rights movement because it was moving too fast; or defend biodiversity (as far as they understand it) because the rain forest is full of potential medicines, or because of “ecosystem services.” I became disgusted with liberals in the 1960s when I heard them object to the war on such grounds. Relatively few voices said, “The war is WRONG– not because it’s inexpedient, or because it’s costly, or because obliterating villages is a poor tactic. It’s wrong because it is unjust and serves repugnant ends, using vile means.” Such a stance, I was told, was “not reasonable.” Just like it’s “reasonable” to spent a trillion dollars a year on the War Department, but complain about spending a fraction of the cost on child care or public health or environmental protection.
    The strategies you advocate, which I agree are necessary, are about an alternative set of values, which you articulate throughout your writings with a lot of clarity and energy. They are humane values, but they become compelling only once there is some common ground between the advocate (you) and the person-to-be-persuaded. This is a matter of values, and values are not only rational. They get people into action because they are deeply rooted in a world view that at bottom prefers one thing or one path over another. This often (maybe always) has roots that include rationality, but also in emotion, esthetics, and imagination. This is why art, rhetoric, and personal stories can have the power to challenge people to allow change, when argument falls on deaf ears.

  6. John Jeremiah Edminster says

    Thank you, Brian. I had decided to not answer Abe, but just let him think I’m stupid, because our ways of thinking seemed so widely divergent, and I was feeling my lack of the “art, rhetoric, and personal stories” that might shift him into a more sympathetic stance. The fact is, my conscience forbids me to use or invoke violence to dethrone or force the hand of the world’s decision-makers, and I lack the money to mount a propaganda campaign to get, say, the common people of Kenya vaccinated against COVID (where a friend tells me that only the elite have access to the vaccine). The only weapon I have is what Gandhi called _satyagraha_, the force of truth. But _satyagraha_ has worked before; and anyway the question is not what will work but what we’re permitted to use.

  7. says

    @John – You seem to have chosen not to actually look into what I advocate.

    You also seem to be assuming that I have not been previously exposed to the ideas you espouse.

    I don’t advocate violence, but I do advocate self defense, and I’m aware that history has shown that the powerful WILL use violence to keep their power.

    Do you think Ghandi’s movement was solely responsible for Indian and Pakistani independence?

    It was not. As with the nonviolent aspects of the civil rights movement, it was one part of a much larger picture. The British Empire, for example, had been in a minor scuffle called World War 2, which limited their ability to project power on the other side of the world. At the same time, the national shutdown – which is PRECISELY the kind of organizing I consistently advocate – wasn’t just an impressive display, it also acted as a threat. If they can take an action that big and coordinated NON-violently, then it’s clear that if they commit to it, they can, in fact, push us out of their country by force. The movement as a whole was not nonviolent, just Gandhi’s part of it.

    Similarly, groups like the Black Panther Party focused on self-defense and on building up the community, but they acted as a counterpoint to the non-violent work of King and his colleagues, which in turn helped persuade the US government to talk to “the reasonable one”.

    I’m not interested in a violent revolution, but revolutionary change is necessary, and no matter how much I wish, I can’t bring myself to believe that the people behind the brutality we’ve seen in the past few years will suddenly stop trying to use violence to get their way.

    My preference is to have a level of organization that would – through things like general strikes, national shutdowns, etc. – make it clear that war will not work in the favor of those most likely to start one. That doesn’t exclude people doing other kinds of work, or even doing things that I don’t consider to be useful at all, it just demands a grounding in the material reality that we all share.

  8. says

    @Brian – if someone is advocating for direct action, I’m all ears.

    “Repentance” as a strategy is either a lack of action, or so vague as to be meaningless. Likewise, describing what I advocate as “scapegoating the destroyers of the world” is absurd and nonsensical.

    A scapegoat, by definition, is not responsible for the sins put upon it.

    Nor do I advocate for driving billionaires into the wilderness. They get housing, healthcare, food, and freedom like everyone else, they just don’t get to destroy other people’s lives for their personal benefit.

    Scapegoating is a useless gesture from those unwilling or unable to do anything real.

  9. says

    Also, general bit of advice for anyone who needs it, telling an atheist to repent is not a good way to reach out.

    P.P.S. despite what you apparently decided for some reason, I don’t think you’re stupid. I don’t think “stupid” is a meaningful concept, but I also don’t think you’re incapable of understanding me. What I do think is that you’ve given up, which is something for which I have no time.

    If I’m wrong, you’re welcome to try to explain your strategy of action to me. Maybe speak a bit more plainly?

  10. says

    A note on repentance and the test of action:
    Repentence (the Greek word used in the gospels means “change your mind,” or even “come to your senses”) has two key elements:
    1. A recognition that you’ve been seeing things wrong, and as a consequence your actions have been/continue to be harmful, or are allowing harm to happen, or leaving undone some good action that you could have done;
    2. Behavior change. As a consequence of an acknowledgment of this, you undertake on the basis of that new understanding to act differently henceforth.
    It is never just a matter of feeling different, it’s a matter of living out the consequences of the change in understanding. The change in mind brings with it a realization of responsibility, of putting your morney where your mouth is, so to speak….This may include making reparations, or seeking reconciliation, if harm has been done, or pain inflicted.
    So “repentance” always brings with it the standing challenge: “What difference does it make?”
    If it doesn’t make a difference in action, it isn’t completed. “Feeling sorry” can be a first step, but it’s not at all enough.
    Hence the prophet’s basic message: “Cease to DO evil, learn to DO good.”
    Otherwise, it’s self-indulgence or sentimentality.
    I don’t think the various people in this discussion are that far apart on this point.

  11. says

    That is not the impression I got from the post that was shared, or the notion of hoping that “repentance” will percolate into the halls of power and fix things. Both, to me, read as “we’ve failed so this is all we’ve got left”.

    Nor do I think the violence of allowing those in power to continue destroying everything without forceful opposition is lesser than the violence of that opposition.


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