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South Africa, WHO urge reversal of travel bans as world scrambles to contain Omicron

President Cyril Ramaphosa says blacklisting his nation is ‘scientifically unjustified’; UN health director in Africa says it may only slightly reduce the spread of COVID

People lineup to get on a flight to Paris at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. (AP Photo/ Jerome Delay)
People lineup to get on a flight to Paris at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. (AP Photo/ Jerome Delay)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the new highly mutated coronavirus variant, Omicron.

“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.

Dozens of countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbors since South African scientists flagged Omicron last week.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” Ramaphosa said.

“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,” he added.

“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses a media conference at the end of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 27, 2018. (AP/Themba Hadebe, Pool)

The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science, rather than imposing flight bans.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said in a statement.

“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based,” the UN body said.

Although the World Health Organization has defined Omicron as a variant of concern, scientists are still assessing its virulence.

Ramaphosa said the “most powerful tool” to limit its transmission was the vaccine and urged South Africans to get jabbed.

A young woman reacts as she receives a Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township, near Johannesburg, October 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

He said the government was considering making vaccines mandatory for certain activities and locations in a bid to increase uptake.

Just over 35 percent of adults in South Africa have been fully inoculated due to a slow start to its vaccine campaign and widespread hesitancy.

The country is the worst virus-hit in Africa, with around 2.9 million cases and 89,797 deaths reported to date.

Omicron is believed to be fueling a rise in infections, with 1,600 new cases recorded on average in the past seven compared to 500 the previous week.

The Omicron strain has cast doubt on global efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic because of fears that it is highly infectious, forcing countries to reimpose measures many had hoped were a thing of the past.

As scientists race to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain — particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines — a South African doctor said dozens of her patients suspected of Omicron infection had shown only mild symptoms such as fatigue.

A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Netherlands, and Israel.

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