President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night called for the lifting of travel bans imposed on Southern African countries in the wake of the detection of a new Covid-19 variant.
Countries that have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other Southern African countries include the United Kingdom, United States, European Union members, Canada, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Seychelles, Brazil, and Guatemala.
“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our Southern African sister countries,” said Ramaphosa.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.
“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.”
In a televised address Ramaphosa said no new restrictions would be put in place in South Africa.
On the travel bans, he said there was “no scientific justification for keeping these restrictions in place”.
There has been an acute rise in new cases in South Africa, which expects to enter the fourth wave next month.
At the latest count, there were 2 828 new Covid-19 cases, most of them in Gauteng.
Ramaphosa said: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of Southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant”.
He said new variants may well be more transmissible, cause more severe disease, and be more resistant to the current vaccines.
“Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay,” said Ramaphosa.
“This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of G20 countries in Rome last month.
“They pledged at that meeting to restart international travel in a safe and orderly manner, consistent with the work of relevant international organisations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization, and the OECD.”
Ramaphosa said the Omicron variant was first described in Botswana and subsequently in South Africa. He said scientists have also identified cases in countries such as Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Israel.
“The early identification of this variant is a result of the excellent work done by our scientists in South Africa and is a direct result of the investment that our Science and Innovation and Health Departments have made in our genomic surveillance capabilities,” said the president.
“We are one of the countries in the world that set up a surveillance network throughout the country to help us monitor the behaviour of Covid-19.”
Ramaphosa said the early detection of the variant and the work that has already gone into understanding its properties and possible effects “means that we are better equipped” to respond to the variant.
“We pay tribute to all our scientists who are world-renowned and widely respected and have demonstrated that they have a deep knowledge of epidemiology,” said Ramaphosa.
The president said there was no need for “panic” because South Africa had tools to tackle the virus, with the most important being vaccination.
“We will continue to be guided by the World Health Organization on international travel, which advises against the closure of borders,” said Ramaphosa.
“Like most other countries, we already have the means to control the importation of variants to other countries.”
He said more than 25 million people in South Africa, which has a population of about 60 million, had been vaccinated.
Ramaphosa urged all those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so in order to help tackle the virus.
The president said while the sharp increase of cases was a concern he was not imposing any new restrictions. South Africa remains on Alert Level One.
“The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue,” said Ramaphosa.
“Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk. Until everyone is vaccinated, we should expect that more variants will emerge.”