South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that travel bans imposed on the country, particularly by European Union countries, following the discovery of a new variant of Covid-19 in the country are “unjustified.”
The travel bans “are completely against the norms and standards” advised by the World Health Organization, he said at an online press conference on Friday. “That kind of action is instinctive and panic … It is a risk to reveal what you have found,” he said, adding that his country is being a “scapegoat.”
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South Africa, which before the pandemic, relied on tourism for 7% of gross domestic product and 1.5 million jobs, will be affected by the ban that comes at the start of the southern hemisphere’s summer vacation season.
The UK and several other countries have also stopped flights to and from southern Africa. The UK, the largest source of foreign tourists to South Africa, did not consult the country’s government before imposing a ban.
“This makes countries with scientific capabilities less likely to report when they find something,” said Nicholas Crisp, acting director general of the South African Department of Health and director of the country’s vaccination program.
He said the first thing he heard about the ban was a WhatsApp message from a UK high commission official, who apologized. He did not identify the official.
While the variant, known as B.1.1.529, was identified by South African scientists, it has since been identified in Belgium in a traveler arriving from Egypt, according to a government adviser post on Twitter. Phaahla repeated the information at the press conference.
A case was also found in Israel and Botswana and Hong Kong also reported finding cases. The Hong Kong case was someone who had traveled from South Africa, while Botswana said the cases were from travelers, without saying where they came from.
While there have been significant infections in people who have already been vaccinated, there is so far no indication that they are seriously affected, Ian Sanne, a member of the South African Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19, said at the press conference.
The daily number of coronavirus infections in South Africa rose to 2,828 on Friday from 2,465 the day before, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. The proportion of positive tests increased to 9.2% from 6.5%.
Scientists around the world expressed the same concern that South African researchers have about the “constellation” of mutations found in the variant, Tulio de Oliveira, head of gene sequencing institutions in South Africa, told the news conference. The World Health Organization has called the mutation a worrisome variant and has named it Omicron.
“We have been punished for the wrong reasons,” Sanne said.
© 2021 Bloomberg