Omicron: South Africa, Botswana fight travel restrictions

South Africa Travel Ban

Travellers queue at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 27, 2021, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant Omicron.

Photo credit: Phill Magakoe| AFP

What you need to know:

  • Omicron is regarded as a heavily mutated Covid-19 variant and is feared to be more transmissible and evades vaccines
  • Both countries have been placed on the UK red list of travel restrictions and more countries have joined in imposing the travel bans

South Africa says it is being punished for detecting new Covid-19 variants quicker while Botswana claims the Omicron variant was brought into their country by diplomats. 

Both countries have been placed on the UK red list of travel restrictions and more countries have joined in imposing the travel bans.

Several countries including the United States, Canada, India, Australia, Israel and the Philippines have banned direct flights from South Africa.

Fellow Southern African Development Community (SADC) members Angola, Seychelles and Mauritius have also shut their borders to South Africa and Botswana.

Since the variant was first detected in Botswana and South Africa on November 24, the two countries alongside other southern Africa countries like Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Malawi and Mozambique have been added to the travel restrictions by several countries.

“We also note that new variants have been detected in other countries,” South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) said.

“Each of those cases has had no recent links with Southern Africa. It’s worth noting that the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa.”

Omicron is regarded as a heavily mutated Covid-19 variant and is feared to be more transmissible and evades vaccines.

With South Africa being the first country to sequence this variant, they say their “excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”

“This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” said DIRCO.

“The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. A combination of South Africa’s capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination programme, backed up by world class scientific community, should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.

“South Africa follows and enforces globally recognised Covid-19 health protocols on travel. No infected individuals are permitted to leave the country.”

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor said instead of isolating South Africa, other countries should “remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise.”

“Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business,” said Mrs Pandor.

South Africa is concerned that what it feels is stigma as some factions refer to Omicron as the “South African variant.”

While the new variant is widely believed to have been originated in Botswana, the Southern African country has distanced itself from the allegations.

“The new virus was detected on four foreign nationals who had entered Botswana on the 7th November 2021, on a diplomatic mission,” the Botswana government said.

“Contrary to speculations and in some cases insinuations by some that the variant was only detected in Botswana, the truth is that the variant has so far been detected in other countries in Africa and beyond.”

The Botswana government has, however, declined to reveal the country where the diplomats came from.

South Africa is expected to introduce stricter lockdown restrictions.

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