South Africa, whose citizens have suddenly become personae non gratae around the world after the discovery of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant in the country, says it is being “punished” and unfairly treated for sounding the alarm.
The government of Africa’s most pandemic-affected country is seething over the stigma it has suffered in the past 48 hours for being the bearer of bad news.
The decision by many countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant named Omicron “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it added.
“New variants have been detected in other countries. Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa,” yet the global “reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in southern Africa,” the statement said.
The WHO has cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to Omicron.
South Africa’s health ministry slammed the travel restrictions as “draconian” and motivated by “panic” and “misdirected” measures that go “against the norms and advice by the WHO.”
“We feel some of the leadership of countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem,” South African Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said.
Pretoria fears the border closures will hurt “families, the travel and tourism sector, businesses” and that it could deter other countries from reporting discoveries of future variants for fear of being ostracized.
“Sometimes one gets punished for being transparent, and doing things very quick,” said Tulio de Oliveira, a leading virologist who announced the discovery of the Omicron variant.
Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention deputy director Ahmed Ogwell added his disappointment.
“Stop this unscientific knee-jerk travel bans against #Africa,” Ogwell wrote on Twitter. “[Use] public health measures, testing, vaccines. Travel bans is politics.”
Travelers seeking to leave the country also described the swiftly implemented travel bans as impulsive and ill-considered.
“They don’t even care about what South African scientists really think at the moment... they are just in a flatspin, in a complete panic about this new variant,” said South African Nica Kruger, 26, scrambling to get a seat on a flight to Dubai on Saturday.
German university student Ayla Roemer, 28, who arrived in South Africa for a hiking trip, was flying back yesterday and was surprised at the speed with which the Berlin government banned flights from southern Africa.
The South African foreign ministry on Saturday boasted of the country’s capacity to test for COVID-19, and for having its vaccination program backed up by a “world-class scientific community.”
These factors “should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic,” it added.
With about 23.8 percent of the population being fully vaccinated compared with 54 percent of the world’s population, the inoculation rate is low, but much higher than in the rest of Africa, which is recorded at just under 7 percent.
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