Omicron, initially detected in Botswana, has reignited debate over the effectiveness of strict border closures and triggered outrage that South Africa’s transparency in reporting the strain has led to what the region sees as its scapegoating.
South African scientists were the first to identify the variant, which has since been detected in countries around the world. It has now emerged that Omicron was already present in Europe before the travel bans were announced. It’s still not known where Omicron originated.
And yet the travel restrictions have been squarely aimed at southern Africa — including countries that have still not found evidence of the new variant. That has prompted a wave of fury from African politicians and public health officials, who are exasperated by the lack of support they’ve received from the West, which they say are now discriminating against countries still desperate for vaccine doses.
That list has rapidly expanded since the weekend, in spite of warnings from researchers that the threat the new variant poses is not yet clear. And with it, so has the criticism.
The countries restricting travel include the United States, which barred entry to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
“It’s deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing. We call on all countries to take rational, proportional risk reduction measures in keeping with international health regulations,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks at a WHO briefing Wednesday.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said that travel bans have limited the ability of South African researchers to ship virus samples out of the country, “so there are other implications for these travel bans that are out there.”
“We do not want to see countries penalized for sharing information, because this is how WHO and our partners, this is how we make assessments and how we provide advice,” she said.
In an address to the United Nations World Tourism General Assembly in Madrid on Wednesday, South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Lindiwe Sisulu, condemned the bans and called out Spanish officials for making it “impossible” for southern African representatives to attend due to new travel restrictions.
Africa’s rage over the bans spread internationally as hundreds also expressed anger on social media.
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