Countries impose travel restrictions as new COVID-19 variant puts world on high alert

•Travel bans targeting Africa threaten ‘global solidarity’ —WHO Africa director

AS fears mount over the newly identified coronavirus variant, Omicron, governments around the world are scrambling to protect their citizens from a potential outbreak by placing travel restrictions on eight African countries. 

According to CNN, the new mutation, which is potentially more transmissible, was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in the Netherlands, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong. 

Dutch health authorities announced that the 13 cases of the variant were found among passengers who were on flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam on Friday. Authorities had tested more than 600 passengers on two flights into the country and had found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for the new variant. 

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam. 

“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.” 

Three cases as of Sunday had been recorded in the UK and were linked to travel to southern Africa, according to UK’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid. 

One case of the Omicron variant was detected in a traveller who arrived from Namibia to the Czech Republic, according to the Regional Hospital in Liberec. 

Three German cases, identified in Munich, were passengers who arrived from Cape Town on November 24, the Bavarian Ministry of Health said in a statement on Saturday. 

One case was confirmed in a person returning from Malawi to Isreal, Israel’s Health Ministry said Saturday. 

Two Omicron cases have been detected in Australia in passengers from southern Africa arrived in Sydney, the New South Wales Health Ministry said Sunday, while Italy confirmed one case of Omicron is a traveller coming from Mozambique. 

The new variant prompted governments to slam shut their borders to people coming from the region. 

Major travel destinations including the European Union, Japan, Australia, the United States and Canada have moved to block flights from African countries following the discovery of the Omicron variant, echoing previous emergency responses that triggered a global freeze on travel. 

United States president, Joe Biden, has announced travel restriction for travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting Monday, officials told CNN. 

Biden told the press he had “decided we’re going to be cautious” about the variant. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly,” he said. 

Similarly, Canada will be “banning the entry of foreign nationals… that have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days,” due to the Omicron variant, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a press conference on Friday. 

Europe is also frantically imposing travel bans and scrambling to ramp up its coronavirus sequencing abilities after several countries on the continent reported suspected Omicron cases. European Union states have agreed to introduce temporary restrictions on all travel into the EU from southern Africa. 

Israel is also banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears, authorities announced Saturday. 

Meanwhile, South Korea has imposed restrictions on travellers from eight southern African countries, its Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced Saturday. 

Foreign nationals travelling from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique are banned from entering South Korea, the agency said. 

The issuing of visas for nationals from those countries has been suspended until further notice, it added. 

Korean nationals entering from those countries must quarantine in a government-designated facility for 10 days. African countries like Egypt and Morocco has also announced restrictions on flights and travellers from southern African nations. 

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa on Sunday said that it stands with African nations and called for borders to remain open as an increasing number of countries around the world impose flight bans on Southern Africa due to concerns over the Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

The office said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread. With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, “putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said. 

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

Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. If restrictions are implemented, they 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,” WHO Africa said in a statement, adding that WHO is “scaling up” support to genomic sequencing in the continent. 

WHO at the weekend had designated the newly identified variant (B.1.1.529) as a variant of concern, named Omicron.

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