South African President calls for lifting of travel bans on Omicron

South African President calls for lifting of travel bans on Omicron

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on countries to “urgently” cancel “scientifically unjustified” travel restrictions linked to the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus.
His comments on Sunday came as the highly mutated variant – dubbed Omicron – continued to spread around the world, with new cases identified in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.

Dozens of countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbors since South African scientists reported the new variant this week. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated Omicron as a “variant of concern” which is potentially more contagious than previous variants.

“We call on all countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our sisterly countries in southern Africa to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” Ramaphosa said, in his first address to the nation since Omicron detection.

“The travel ban is not based on science,” he added.

“The only thing the travel ban will do will be further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic,” he added.

“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminatory against our country and our sister countries in southern Africa. “

The abrupt halt in flights spooked South Africa’s vital tourism industry, with booking cancellations increasing directly after the announcement. The country’s tourism sector lost $ 10 billion in bookings in 2020 due to a drop in foreign visitors, and it is estimated to lose around $ 10 million every week as flights are suspended from major tourism markets foreigners.

Reporting from Johannesburg, Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller said there had been “great frustration” among government officials and members of the scientific community over the travel restrictions.

“There is a lot of concern about the meaning of these travel restrictions [economically] for southern Africa as a region, especially before the holiday season, where thousands of European visitors are expected, ”she said. “A lot of anger from the president and the government around the good job, they say, the scientists did on the genome sequencing and also traced the changes in COVID-19, but instead South Africa was punished . “

Commending South Africa for informing the United Nations health agency as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant, Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, also criticized the travel restrictions and called on countries to follow international scientific and health regulations to avoid such measures.

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, but take a heavy toll on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, in accordance with the International Health Regulations, which are a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by more than 190 countries. “

Shabir Madhi, a South African vaccinologist, told Al Jazeera it was “naive” for countries “to believe that they can stop the spread of this variant with a blanket ban on southern African countries.”

“The virus has already entered these societies from individuals who haven’t even traveled or been in contact with someone in southern Africa,” he said. “In South Africa, we have one of the best COVID sequencing capabilities in the world based on our experience in treating HIV and TB. We’ve been ahead of the game for some time now, so we are victims of our success.

While scientists are still assessing Omicron’s virulence, the WHO said on Sunday it was “not yet clear” whether the variant spread more easily from person to person, or whether the infection by the variant caused more severe disease compared to other strains.

“There is currently no information to suggest that the symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants,” the agency said.

Although preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk that people who previously had COVID-19 will be re-infected with Omicron, information is currently limited.

WHO said PCR tests continue to detect Omicron infection, adding that it is working to understand the potential effects of the variant on existing countermeasures, including vaccines.

In his speech, Ramaphosa said that “the most powerful tool” to limit its transmission was the vaccine and urged South Africans to get bitten.

He said the government was considering making vaccines mandatory for certain activities and locations with the aim of increasing use.

About 35 percent of adults in South Africa have been fully vaccinated due to a slow start to its vaccination campaign and widespread reluctance.

The country is worst affected by the virus in Africa, with some 2.9 million cases and 89,797 deaths reported to date.

Omicron is believed to be fueling an increase in infections, with 1,600 new cases recorded on average over the past seven days compared to 500 the week before.


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