South African president blasts US, other nations for travel bans amid Omicron variant

President Cyril Ramaphosa called on countries that have enacted travel bans to "urgently reverse their decisions."

Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, has called the travel bans imposed on his country “scientifically unjustified.” 

He made the comments on Sunday in an address to the nation, his first since the Omicron variant was detected in the country. 

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do,” said South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa (above), “is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.” (Photo: Filip Singer/Getty Images)

The United States has banned travel from eight African countries — and Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka have also banned travel from South Africa and its neighboring nations due to the Omicron variant. Britain, Canada and the European Union have also instituted travel bans on Southern Africa. However, while the variant has also been detected in Australia, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands, no travel bans have been enacted for those countries. 

Ramaphosa called on countries that have enacted travel bans to “urgently reverse their decisions … before any further damage is done to our economies,” per Mediaite

“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. 

Matshidiso Moeti, an official from the World Health Organization, has also criticized the travel bans, which, so far, only target Africa, saying: “With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity.” 

“COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions,” Moeti added. “We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

Moeti says while travel restrictions do slightly reduce the spread of the virus, the restrictions should not “be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”

There is uncertainty about the effect of the Omicron variant. Early scientific study has shown it may be easily transmissible; however, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has told President Joe Biden it will take at least two more weeks to understand Omicron’s transmissibility and severity. Still, “he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid,” the White House told The New York Times.

South Africa reportedly has just 25% of its citizens inoculated against COVID-19. According to The New York Times, around 10% of the eligible population in Africa has received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 64% of North America and 62% of Europe. 

“The blame squarely lies with the rich countries,” said Dr. Githinji Gitahi, a commissioner with Africa Covid-19 Response, a continental task force. “A vaccine delayed is a vaccine denied.”

Writer Joshua Potash shared a recent post from Graeme Codrington of TomorrowToday Global that cited South Africa “has one of the most sophisticated and advanced infectious diseases infrastructure on the planet.”

Codrington, who is South African, noted that the variant has been detected in New Zealand, Brazil, England and other nations, but that his nation isolated, sequenced and understood Omicron first. He called on the media to report that fact and to stop “putting ‘South Africa is unsafe’ into people’s heads.”

Without vaccination as an effective tool to fight the virus on the continent, most African nations rely on mask mandates and curfews. In South Africa, a curfew is in place from midnight to 4 a.m. 

“We know enough about the variant to know what we need to do to reduce transmission and to protect ourselves against severe disease and death,” said President Ramaphosa. “The first, the most powerful, tool we have is vaccination.”

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