South Africa Deserves a Big, Fat Prize

South Africa is paying a heavy price for its good deed of telling the world about the Omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. Many countries, including Britain and the United States, are restricting air travel to and from the nation. That will do more damage to an economy already weakened by the pandemic.

We are setting a bad precedent. In the future, dangerous new variants of the virus could spread farther if countries hide evidence of them — or simply don’t search very hard for them — to avoid the economic repercussions.

What’s the solution? One possibility is to minimize the harm to South Africa by refraining from placing travel bans on it and other nations in southern Africa. On Sunday the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa issued a statement saying: “Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based.”

Travel bans won’t work if the variant has already spread widely and silently outside the targeted nations. But if they work even a little bit, it will be hard to persuade national governments not to impose them. Understandably, each government puts the health and safety of its own people first.

South Africa Deserves a Big, Fat Prize
The New York Times; Photographs by mikroman6, Burazin and Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

There is a way out of this seeming impasse — one that would prevent the spread of the new variant while creating incentives for nations to detect and report future variants.

The solution is money. The rest of the world, through the United Nations or the World Health Organization, should give a large financial prize to South Africa for its work in sequencing and reporting the new variant. The prize should be big enough to fully compensate South Africa for the harm it is suffering for its good work. Better yet, the prize should overcompensate South Africa so that it and other countries will have a strong financial incentive to redouble their efforts to find and report future variants.

Yes, humanitarian aid should be provided to other nations that are under travel bans, but the biggest benefit should go to South Africa, the country that did the most to alert the world to this new threat.

I don’t know what the right size for such prizes might be, but consider this: The gross domestic product of the planet is around $100 trillion a year. So it would be worthwhile to give out a reward of $100 billion if it could help reduce the global damage from Covid-19 even by 0.1 percent. (One nice feature of a prize is that the money would be most likely to go to poor countries that are having the hardest time fighting Covid-19 and could use the money.)

There are complications to be worked out, such as who would be eligible for a prize. Would a private organization qualify or only a government? Would a rich nation like the United States be eligible? How would one structure the prize so that unethical governments wouldn’t have a perverse incentive to let Covid-19 fester and mutate in their populations to increase their chances of finding new variants?

The germ of this idea appeared in May in the report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which was commissioned by the World Health Organization and chaired by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia, and Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand. The report said:

In changing the system of alert to orient it toward speedy action, the incentive structures need to be addressed. At present, from local up to international level, public health actors only see downsides from drawing attention to an outbreak that has the potential to spread. Incentives must be created to reward early response action and recognize that precautionary and containment efforts are an invaluable protection which benefits all humanity.

But the report didn’t specify how to create those incentives. A report this year by the Milken Institute also touched on getting incentives for surveillance and reporting right without specifying how. It warned of “possible negative impacts to a country’s economy, trade, travel and tourism should a novel pathogen be discovered.”

For now, South Africa is the latest proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. “This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” South Africa’s Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation said in a statement on Saturday. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”

Peter Coy has covered business for nearly 40 years.

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