WHO's Tedros condemns 'racist' Omicron cartoon

Image appears to link the variant to migrants arriving in Europe

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The head of the World Health Organisation has condemned a Spanish newspaper’s cartoon that appeared to liken the spread of the Omicron variant to migrants arriving on the shores of the EU.

The drawing by the La Tribuna de Albacete depicts a number of black figures aboard a boat with “Omicron” written on it and a South African flag heading for EU territory.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “It pains me that shows of racism like this still plague the challenges facing the world today.

“Caricaturing people crammed in a boat bringing a virus to Europe is disgusting.”

He added: “We can only advance” as a global community “by promoting solidarity, not stigma”.

The Omicron variant, which may be more resistant to the current offering of Covid-19 vaccines, was first detected in South Africa. Many nations around the world have since restricted or imposed tighter entry requirements on arrivals from southern Africa.

The Tribuna and cartoonist responsible have since apologised “to any readers who may have felt annoyed or offended by the aforementioned publication”.

Dr Tedros has repeatedly condemned vaccine inequity that has seen the developing world with low vaccination rates when large chunks of the populations of wealthy countries are fully inoculated.

He has also expressed his disappointment at the travel restrictions that have been levied against countries in southern Africa.

Elsewhere, there was an apparent mix up by the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper between cabinet ministers Sajid Javid — the son of Pakistani immigrants — and Nadhim Zahawi, who was born in Baghdad to Iraqi Kurd parents.

In a tweet that linked to its live blog, the newspaper quoted Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, as saying the Omicron variant had spread through the community. But the image on the story was of Mr Zahawi, the Education Secretary.

“As far as I know, side effects of Omicron don’t include growing a goatee and glasses …” wrote Mr Zahawi on Twitter.

The new variant, first reported to the WHO by South Africa a week ago, has quickly spread across continents, darkening economic forecasts and deepening fears of another difficult winter.

“Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants,” Dr Tedros said on Wednesday, reminding the world that the Delta variant still “accounts for almost all cases".

“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron.”

The WHO says it could take several weeks to understand whether or not Omicron is more transmissible, and whether it results in more severe disease — as well as how effective current treatments and vaccines are against it.

Its detection and spread, however, have highlighted that the now nearly two-year global fight against Covid-19 is far from over.

Updated: December 07, 2021, 10:35 AM