South Africans are furious over re-imposed travel bans after the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa on 24 November. The UK was the first country to announce a red list of countries that citizens were prohibited from travelling to. This list includes South Africa and Botswana – the two African countries with the first confirmed cases of Omicron infections – as well as Angola, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The US, EU countries, Canada, UAE, Australia, and Japan are among countries that have imposed travel bans on these countries. A handful of African countries, including Rwanda and Morocco, have also implemented bans.
Critics say the bans are selective and discriminatory. Cases of Omicron infections have been detected in many European countries, including Germany, Belgium, and Italy — yet these countries have not been penalised through travel bans. “It is naive for developed countries to believe they can stop the spread of this variant with a blanket ban on countries in southern Africa. This virus has already found its way into these societies from individuals that haven’t even travelled to or come into contact with anyone from southern Africa,” said Shabir Madhi, a South African virologist. Meanwhile, Dutch authorities have confirmed that the variant was already spreading in Western Europe before being detected in South Africa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the first to condemn the ban, describing it as unfair and discriminatory. He called it “a clear and completely unjustified departure” from the commitment that many countries made at the recent G20 meeting in Rome to restart international travel in a safe and orderly manner. “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 said.
South Africa’s tourism sector, which contributes up to 3% of the country’s GDP, is estimated to have lost $10 billion in 2020 due to a sharp drop in foreign visitors. South Africa, like many other African countries, was hoping the sector would start to recover during the upcoming Christmas holiday season. But the ban has now dashed these hopes.
The blame game
Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance, said the ban is based on politics, not on science. She blamed the situation on the lack of an equitable and speedy global vaccine rollout. “Had the first SARS-COVID virus, the one that was identified in China last year, originated in Africa, it is now clear that the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key. There would have been no urgency to develop vaccines, because it would have been expendable. Africa would have been known as the continent of COVID,” she told the BBC.
Dr Alakija’s concerns are not unfounded; shortly after the discovery of the new variant, a German newspaper declared, “The Virus From Africa is Here With Us.” Many people took to Twitter to describe the travel ban on African countries as a racist response to a global problem. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described it as “travel apartheid.” He urged the more than 50 governments that have imposed the collective ban on southern African countries to lift it. The ban has also been criticised for being unrealistic, as most international airlines and governments require passengers to undergo PCR tests before and after they fly, which means chances of international travellers being infected with COVID-19 are extremely low.
Many South Africans believe that the new coronavirus variant did not originate in South Africa. Rather, South Africa was just the first country to detect and flag the highly mutated variant, which was already present in other countries. Moreover, the WHO is blaming travel bans on South Africa for delaying laboratory samples that could inform research into the new variant.
Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation at Stellenbosch University and a member of the South African team of scientists that alerted WHO about Omicron, said the travel ban was one more reason for Western countries to blame Africa despite the continent “not having access to vaccines, having to pay more expensive prices, having to get in the back of the queue, and still doing some of the best science on COVID.”
Described as a “variant of concern,” the highly mutated Omicron is responsible for most of the new COVID-19 infections in South Africa, which are concentrated in the highly dense Guateng province that includes Johannesburg. Only about 30% of South Africans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s a higher rate than most African countries, where the vast majority of populations are yet to receive their first dose of the vaccine. Only 10.5% of Africans have received at least one shot of the vaccine. Infection rates of Omicron in South Africa — as well as in Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria — are highest among those who are unvaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy, which is often blamed for the low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in African countries, appears not to be the primary challenge in South Africa; 72% of South Africans surveyed said they were willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This rate is higher than some European countries and the US. Yet, South Africa, like most African countries, is struggling to vaccinate the majority of their citizens due to lack of vaccines, which is threatening to prolong the pandemic globally.
Scientists and researchers blame vaccine inequity for the rise in new coronavirus variants like Omicron and Delta. “The longer we take to deliver VaccinEquity, the more we allow COVID 19 virus to circulate, mutate and become potentially more dangerous,” tweeted WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Policymakers are concerned that the South African experience may deter scientists in other African countries from alerting the world about new coronavirus variants, as they would worry about the impact this would have on their countries’ already battered economies. WHO has also emphasised that blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron; rather, they would likely discourage countries from reporting new mutated variants of the virus.
Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.