Prominent Africans—including the AU—have condemned what they termed the developed nations’ rush to ban South Africa and other African countries. The travel ban was announced by several nations over the discovery of a new coronavirus variant classified as Omicron (SARS-CoV-2) Variant of Concern by the World Health Organization.
South Africa and Botswana first discovered the first cases of the Omicron variant in their respective countries and immediately informed the world. South Africa’s health minister, Joseph Phaahla, during media briefing said South Africa was acting with transparency. He also said that travel bans were against the norms and standards of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The travel ban has renewed a debate over whether it would prevent the spread of the new variants. Some say that, at best, the restrictions can buy time for the U.S and EU to put in place public health measures. However, the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are strongly against the travel ban.
What we know about the Omicron Variant so far
The World Health Organization on Nov. 26, 2021, designated the variant B.1.1529 as a variant of concern and called it Omicron. The choice of name was from the advice of the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE). According to TAG-VE, Omicron has several mutations that may impact how the virus behaves, this includes the severity of the illness it can cause and the ease of spread.
Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection. However, experts do not know if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains. The WHO said, “The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all South African provinces”.
Also, preliminary evidence suggests that people with prior COVID-19 infection are at a higher risk of reinfection from the Omicron variant. WHO is working with technical partners to know if the currently available vaccines are effective against the Omicron variant. Thankfully, the PCR test currently in use can detect infections including from Omicron. See the emerging details from Omicron here.
The South African Medical Association (SAMA) has said people infected with the Omicron variant have only mild symptoms. The Chairwoman of SAMA Angelique Coetzee has said research on the Omicron variant is still in its initial stages. Furthermore, scientists say that Omicron could be more transmissible and can evade the body’s immune defenses, making vaccines likely less effective.
Every variant of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, particularly for the most vulnerable people. Scientists are still unclear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease than infections with other variants.
South African countries fume
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has called on every country that has imposed travel bans to reverse their decisions urgently. Also, the president urged these countries to lift the travel ban before it causes more economic damages. South African scientists first discovered Omicron, and President Ramaphosa commended their work. He said,
“South African scientists are world-renowned and deeply respected. What we know about Omicron so far reflects their work. deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from several Southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant.”
He mentioned that it is a completely unjustified departure from the commitment made at the meeting of G20 countries in Rome last month. Also noting that countries pledged at the G20 meeting to restart international travel safely and orderly.
Furthermore, the G20 Rome Declaration acknowledged the predicament of the tourism sector in developing countries, and they promised to support a “rapid, resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery of the tourism sector”. The President also said that the travel ban is “unjustified and unfairly discriminate against South Africa and its sister countries”.
Should we condemn countries for shutting their borders?
When the coronavirus pandemic was first discovered in China in 2019, the WHO was blamed for acting too slowly. The popular opinion then was that shutting down travels to and from China would have helped to stop the spread. However, the pattern of spread of COVID-19 since its discovery shows that travel ban, alone, is ineffective in stopping the spread.
According to the South African resident, instead of prohibiting travel, developed countries need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.
In a Facebook post, Malawi’s president, Lazarus Chakwera, has also described the travel ban as “Afrophobia”. He said that the whole world owes South African scientists an appreciation for identifying the new strain before anyone else, and South African countries shouldn’t be punished.
Nevertheless, the governments placing a travel ban on South African countries acted with the intention of buying time to better understand the variant. Interestingly, emerging details show that the variant may have already been in circulation weeks before the announcement from South Africa. This discovery nullifies the intent of the travel ban.
Johns Hopkins University infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja says the travel restrictions only give the public a false sense of security. He also said imposing restrictions makes politicians “look as if they are doing something” but doesn’t make sense when countries now have countermeasures such as rapid tests and vaccines.
Reactions trailing the travel ban on South African countries
Many social media users continue to express their opinion on the Omicron variant as well as the travel ban. However, the majority of the opinions condemned the travel ban.
As #Omicron starts popping up across the world we may want to listen to @CyrilRamaphosa "The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,"
— henry rugamba (@henruga) November 29, 2021
Lucky that #SouthAfrica alerted the #world to the dangers of #omicron #newvariant … it has been prevalent in most countries and there were no travel restrictions because they were #European and #American #Afrophobia … #South Africa is a class act when it comes to detection… pic.twitter.com/tjyju7wViP
— Aslam Bava (@AslamBava) December 2, 2021
Omicron is likely already all over the world. South Africa and Botswana were the first to (heroically) report it. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Moving forward, we need: global vaccine equity, mask mandates, access to rapid antigen tests & govt's to admit that #COVIDisAirborne
— DrFiona (she/her) (@fiona_chembot) December 2, 2021
Global COVID-19 vaccine distribution
The ban punishes countries that have not had the resources to vaccinate widely. South African countries may not have the infrastructure to distribute the vaccines quickly or, in some cases, store them at the necessary ultracold temperatures, forcing them to turn down shipments of additional doses.
Africa lags behind other continents in COVID-19 vaccinations. However, WHO officials have attributed the vaccination gaps to the unequal distribution of vaccines. They noted that wealthier nations have acquired enough doses to offer booster shots. In contrast, citizens of poorer countries are struggling to get their first doses.
Sadly, only fifteen countries in Africa have fully vaccinated 10% of their citizens against Coronavirus as of September 2021. In May, the World Health Assembly set a goal for countries worldwide to fully vaccinate 10% of their population by Sept. 30. Almost 90% of high income-countries have met this target.
Even though the WHO designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern, they recommend countries to undertake other measures instead of the travel ban. Such measures include enhancing surveillance and sequencing of cases and sharing genome progressions on publicly available databases.
According to the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, more variants will continue to emerge until there is equitable distribution of vaccines. The WHO DG says the only way of stopping the emergence of new variants is to ensure at least 50% of the population of every country is vaccinated.
So do you think placing a travel ban on South African countries due to Omicron is right? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.