South Africa feels punished for alerting the world to a new variant

JOHANNESBURG – As the United States and European countries close their borders over fears over the recently detected variant of the coronavirus, many South Africans say they feel ‘punished’ for alerting global health authorities.

Hours after South African scientists announced the existence of a new variant which they said showed “a big leap in evolution”, Britain banned travelers from African countries southern. Other European nations and the United States quickly followed suit.

“I apologize that people made a very drastic decision,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform and the scientist who announced the new variant on Thursday. .

Fresh out of a virtual meeting with world health leaders, including Dr.Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s senior medical adviser on the coronavirus, Mr. Oliveira told reporters he believed international solidarity would be in favor of South Africa’s decision to publish its findings.

The variant, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization, has been detected in 22 patients in South Africa. In neighboring Botswana, four cases of the new variant have been found. The government announced that the four cases were all foreign diplomats who had since left and that contact tracing was continuing.

The economies of South Africa and Botswana depend on tourists from the United States, Europe and China. South African Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu called the temporary travel bans “devastating”. Earlier this year, South African diplomats and scientists pressured the UK government to lift a previous ban that had already crippled tourism.

“We were on the UK red list and we got off and without notification we ended up on the red list,” Ms Sisulu told a national television station.

“Perhaps the ability of our scientists to trace some of these variants has been our greatest weakness,” Ms. Sisulu said. “We find ourselves punished for the work we do. “

Health officials in Africa have suggested that increased screening at points of entry, or even longer quarantine periods, would have been a better alternative.

“This will only discourage different countries from sharing information that could be very important for global public health,” said Thierno Balde, incident manager for the Covid-19 emergency response for the regional office of the World Organization. health in Africa.

South Africa’s transparency has been criticized by some local officials and businessmen. Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said South African officials should have consulted their “travel partners” before making the announcement.

In January 2020, ahead of global travel restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic, 93,315 international tourists arrived at Cape Town International Airport, according to Statistics South Africa. By May 2021, that number had fallen to 4,821.

After the travel restrictions imposed after the highly transmissible Delta variant, Mr Hill-Lewis said he believed South African authorities should have expected such restrictions.

“It should have been foreseen and strong diplomacy implemented,” he said.

But Craig Lucke, a Cape Town-based guide who organizes tours to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa called the countries’ actions “a total shock.”

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