IN a space of a few days, southern Africa found itself cut off from the rest of the world following the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) named Omicron.
Last week South Africa discovered the B.1.1.529 variant and reported it as per protocol, the rest of the world just seemed to lose it. First, the United Kingdom announced travel bans to and from South Africa and the rest of southern Africa.
It was then joined by the rest of Europe and other countries. The detection of the new variant seemed to have caught many countries by surprise, despite warnings by global experts that such an outbreak was likely because of previous mutations of the virus.
So far, about 30 countries have imposed travel restrictions from some countries, mostly southern African countries because of their interlinkages. China has closed the border to everyone except returning residents and special permit holders. Japan has shut out everyone, as has Morocco, the only country in Africa to take such drastic measures.
There actually isn’t much information about the Omicron variant, just that it was fast-moving, it was a highly mutant variant, that it spreads twice as fast as the dominant Delta variant and had the potential to evade treatment and vaccines.
So far, the Omicron variant has been detected in at least 19 countries since November 24.
However, after the West rushed to impose travel restrictions on southern Africa, reports on Tuesday showed that, in fact, the Omicron variant was detected in the Netherlands before its detection in South Africa.
A travel ban to and from southern Africa will not stop the coronavirus from finding its way to the West and the rest of the world and there do not seem to be any benefit from such a ban. Previous experience has shown that it’s naive to believe that imposing travel bans on a handful of countries will stop the spread of the variant.
This is already evident with cases of the variant being reported in Belgium, Israel, UK and Germany and those cases were not linked to travel to any southern African country.
Instead of increasing vaccine roll-out to the poor African countries, the rich nations have opted to cordon off the region and leave it to face the unfolding disaster alone.
The travel bans simply leave southern Africa isolated and facing health and economic consequences of the West’s panic.
No Omicron-linked deaths have been reported and further research is needed to assess its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, as WHO said on Monday this week.
The West must remember that it will never be safe from whatever COVID-29 variant emerges until the rest of the world has equal access to vaccines and is also safe.