Due to concerns about the new omicron variant, the World Health Organization urged countries around the world not to impose travel bans on southern African countries on Sunday.
Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, urged countries to follow science and international health regulations rather than imposing travel restrictions.
“Travel restrictions may help to slow the spread of COVID-19, but they have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are imposed, they should not be overly invasive or intrusive, and they should be scientifically justified,” according to the International Health Regulations, a legally binding instrument of international law recognised by over 190 countries.
Moeti praised South Africa for adhering to international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as the omicron variant was discovered by its national laboratory.
“The South African and Botswana governments should be commended for their speed and transparency in informing the world about the new variant,” Moeti said. “The World Health Organization stands with African countries that have had the courage to share life-saving public health information, assisting in the global fight against the spread of COVID-19.”
The restrictions, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, are “completely unjustified.”
“The travel ban is not based on science, and it will not prevent the spread of this variant,” he said in a speech on Sunday evening. “The only effect of the travel ban will be to further harm the economies of the affected countries, as well as to undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic.”
Cases of the coronavirus’s omicron variant appeared in countries on opposite sides of the globe on Sunday, prompting many governments to close their borders, despite scientists warning that it’s unclear whether the new variant is more dangerous than other versions of the virus.
While research into the omicron variant continues, WHO advises that all countries “take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its spread.”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, stressed that no evidence exists that the new COVID-19 variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.
“When you look at how quickly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa, I do believe it’s more contagious,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
As nations scrambled to slow the spread of the variant, Israel decided to bar foreigners from entering, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday among the most severe of a growing raft of travel restrictions being imposed. Its presence has been confirmed by scientists in a number of locations, ranging from Hong Kong to Europe. On Sunday, the Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases, while Australia found two.
Beginning Monday, the United States will prohibit travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries.
“With the omicron variant now found in multiple parts of the world, imposing travel bans that target Africa is an attack on global solidarity,” Moeti said. “COVID-19 takes advantage of our divisions on a regular basis. We can only beat the virus if we work together to find solutions.”
The WHO announced that it is increasing its support for genomic sequencing in Africa so that sequencing labs have enough human resources and testing reagents to operate at full capacity. WHO also stated that it is prepared to provide additional assistance in strengthening COVID-19 responses in southern African countries, including surveillance, treatment, infection prevention, and community engagement.
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