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Africa’s leaders call out discriminatory omicron travel bans

A passenger is seen at the South African Airways (SAA) customer desk with his head resting on his hand and bag in a position that shows frustration. The picture is taken from behind him.
African leaders decry the omicron-related travel bans imposed on several African countries.
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Nearly two weeks after South Africa raised the flag over the new omicron variant, African leaders have called the newly imposed travel bans on African countries discriminatory and unjust.

Despite the omicron variant being detected in over 40 countries, including the US and across Europe, similar travel bans are yet to be imposed against non-African countries.

Yet covid-19 numbers remain far higher in Europe than across southern Africa. On 7 Dec., the UK registered over 50,000 new cases, whereas South Africa registered 6,400 and Malawi 16. This has led to several African leaders calling the bans discriminatory.

“Now that omicron has been found in many non-African and developed countries, why are travels from those countries not banned?” tweeted Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank Group.

“Singling out African countries is very unfair, non-scientific and discriminatory.”

Some have likened the travel restrictions to former colonial policies, which imposed race-based segregation on the basis that Africa was the ‘source’ of deadly diseases.

South Africa and the region is being unfairly punished for transparency

On 25 Nov., South Africa alerted the world to a new covid-19 variant detected in the country. It remains unknown whether the virus originated in South Africa or elsewhere. Despite the global health body warning against “knee-jerk responses,” reactions have been swift.

A day later, the UK placed six African countriesBotswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabweon its travel ‘red list.’ The EU, US, and Canada and numerous other countries quickly followed suit.

Since then, the UK has extended the ban to Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zambia. Under these restrictions, visitors are only eligible to enter the UK if they are a British or Irish National or have residence rights. The UK has also suspended visa applications from red list countries.

In addition, some countries have placed stricter testing measures on southern African nations. Canada is no longer accepting covid-19 test results from 10 African countries, requiring travelers to get a test from a third country before entry.

Travel apartheid

The Nigeria high commissioner to London, Sarafa Tunji Isola, has condemned the bans as “travel apartheid.”

Outside of the continent, the media has also faced criticism for their reporting of the new variant. Local newspapers in Thailand, Spain, and Germany were forced to apologize after their headlines on omicron and Africa sparked backlash. Some of the content was called out in a tweet by Dr. Tedros Grebreyesus, Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO.)

The criticism of the travel bans has also stemmed from Africa’s lack of access to vaccines – which has increased the chances of the virus mutating. Many countries have not followed through on their pledge to donate vaccines to the continent. As a result, only 7.5% of Africa’s population is currently vaccinated.

Some predicted this outcome. In an interview in March 2021, Dr John Nkengasong, the Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that “[Europe and the US] will finish vaccinating, impose travel restrictions and then Africa becomes the continent of Covid.”

These latest bans have dealt another blow to the region’s tourism sector. South Africa has the second largest tourism industry in Africa, contributing nearly 7% of its GDP and employing over 1 million people. In July, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC,) reported that the South African economy could face losses of more than ZAR 181 million ($11.4 million) every week (pdf) if it remains on the UK’s red list.

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called for an immediate lift of the bans, asking countries to reverse them “before any further damage is done to the economy.” Ramaphosa said he learnt about the travel ban through a “patronising” and “disrespectful” call from European officials.

In Malawi, president and SADC chair, Lazarus Chakwera deemed the new restrictions afrophobic.

“The unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia and others are uncalled for,”  he said. “Covid measures must be based on science, not afrophobia.”

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