South Africa’s President urges nations to lift border closures amid the new variant being spread, claiming it an “unjustified” response in fears its recovering economy will be further damaged.
The B.1.1.529 Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on 24 November, and epidemiologists have said it is one of concern, despite knowledge of it still remaining unclear.
Since the news was reported, nations globally have shut their borders and cancelled flights to and from the country, including the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and others.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his first address to the nation on Sunday concerning the variant: “The prohibition of travel is not informed by science.”
“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.
“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.
The nation’s daily cases were at a steady rate between 100 to 300, but since the Omicron variant emerged, daily infections have topped to 6,000 from the latest data.
While its aviation sector was expected to return to normal by 2024 at the latest, several steps to ensure its recovery were recommended in September by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), including increased intra-Africa connectivity and digitised COVID-19 health measures.
The border closures are now expected to delay the recovery, especially ahead of the summer holidays where its tourism was expected to inch closer to pre-pandemic levels.
Belgium was the first country in Europe to report a case of the variant, followed by its borders shutting from South Africa immediately.
“We have one case of this variant that is confirmed. It’s someone who came from abroad,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
The European Commission said it proposed to member states to activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in South Africa and others of concern on Friday, 26 November.
Germany banned all flights from South Africa – except those bringing nationals back to the nation – amid the discovery of the variant.
On 26 November, in a White House press briefing, President Joe Biden announced all air travel would be restricted from South Africa and seven other countries – excluding US citizens – taking effect on Monday.
The other nations include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, officials told CNN.
The President said its move to ban flights beginning on Monday was “cautious” due to the recommendations from his medical team.
British Airways announced in early November it was slated to start daily flights to Johannesburg again in mid-December, kickstarting connection with one of its key tourism markets.
“We’re working through plans for our customers and colleagues currently in South Africa and those due to travel from the UK in the coming days,” the carrier said in an emailed statement, according to Bloomberg.
Shanghai swiftly banned all flights from the nation to maintain its tight zero-COVID strategy, after three positive cases were reported on Thursday.
Over 500 flights from Shanghai’s two major airports were cancelled on Friday, according to VariFlight data.
On Sunday, China Eastern cancelled 21 per cent of its flights, Air China cancelled 19 per cent of its daily flights and Shanghai Airlines cancelled 14 per cent of its flights.
Its estimated South Africa will lose millions due to cancelled flights weekly following the border closures, and the South African President, among other leaders, have persisted that the immediate flight suspensions were not the correct response.
“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries,” President Ramaphosa continued in his speech.