As a leading World Health Organization official pleaded against "knee-jerk" reactions after the discovery in Botswana of the latest Covid-19 strain, South Africa's government on Saturday joined public health advocates in criticizing wealthy nations for imposing travel bans on African countries while failing to address "the vaccine inequity that drives new variants."
"These travel bans are based in politics, and not in science. It is wrong... Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents?"
In recent days, the European Union, United States, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, United Arab Emirates, and other nations have banned travelers from southern African countries including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi over concerns about the heavily mutated Omicron variant.
"Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement Saturday. "Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries, and business."
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla added that "we believe that some of the reactions have been unjustified," while accusing rich country leaders of "finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem."
The new variant was first identified in Botswana earlier this month. On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the new strainSARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529as a "variant of concern."
However, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said Friday that "it's really important that there are no knee-jerk responses" to the new variant.
"We've seen in the past, the minute there's any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel," he added. "It's really important that we remain open, and stay focused."
On Saturday, South Africa's Ministry of Foreign Relations and Cooperation pointed to Ryan's admonition in a statement decrying the travel restrictions.
"This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker," the ministry said. "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic."
"We also note that new variants have been detected in other countries," the statement added. "Each of those cases [has] had no recent links with southern Africa. It's worth noting that the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in southern Africa."
Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance, told the BBC that "what is going on right now is inevitable, it's a result of the world's failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent, and speedy manner."
"It is as a result of [vaccine] hoarding by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable," she added. "These travel bans are based in politics, and not in science. It is wrong... Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents?"
Public health experts have called the emergence of the Omicron variant an "entirely avoidable" development.
Tim Bierley of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now said his country's conservative-led government "actively prevented low and middle-income countries from having equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines" by hoarding doses and blocking the sharing of vaccine technology with the Global South.
"We have created the conditions for this variant to emerge," he said.
Some observers noted the irony in the discovery of the new variant in Botswanawhich has only fully vaccinated about one in five of its people against the coronavirus, and whose government has been compelled to pay as much as $29 per vaccine dose by foreign pharmaceutical corporations that sometimes charge poor countries more than developed ones for the life-saving inoculations.
Others accused Global North leaders of racism for banning Africans while welcoming travelers from other nations with reported Omicron cases.
"Racism is ingrained in our society," tweeted Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton. "We love to target 'others'... Trump placed targets on Asian-Americans by repeatedly saying the 'China virus' and now we have restricted South Africa because of Omicron."