Omicron travel bans against Africa unjustifiable, says WHO regional chief
The travel bans imposed on African countries because of the Omicron coronavirus variant are hard to justify and will injure Africa's emergence from the negative impact of the pandemic, according to Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.
Dr. Moeti made the remarks on Thursday as Africa reported a spike in new weekly infections.
"With Omicron now present in nearly 60 countries globally, travel bans that mainly target African countries are hard to justify," said Dr. Moeti.
"Through the diligent surveillance efforts of African scientists, the new variant of concern was first detected on this continent, but it's unclear if transmission was taking place silently in other regions. We call for science-based public health measures to counter the spread of COVID-19. The travel restrictions come at the height of the end-of-year tourist season, ravaging Africa's economies, with a knock-on impact that is potentially devastating to the health of Africans," he added.
According to WHO, weekly COVID-19 cases in the continent surged by 93 percent as 107,000 new cases were recorded in the week ending on December 5, up from around 55 000.
Southern Africa recorded the highest increase with a 140 percent hike mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.
The agency said it had intensified research to determine whether Omicron is fueling the surge in cases seen in Africa, but noted that emerging data from South Africa indicates that the new variant may cause less severe illness.
Dr. Moeti took the opportunity to call for even distribution of vaccines, noting the importance for Africa to obtain more vaccines heading into the festive period.
"What we do know is that uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally is creating an ideal environment for COVID-19 variants to emerge and spread explosively and regions with the least access to vaccines seem likely to suffer the most," said Dr. Moeti. "With the end-of-year travel and festivities upon us, limited vaccination, rising COVID-19 cases and the new variant paint an ominous picture for our region."
Dr. Richard Mihigo, Immunization and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator for the WHO Regional Office for Africa lamented the vaccine situation in Africa, noting that most countries on the continent would miss out on the WHO’s end of the year vaccination target if things remain as they are.
"Only six of Africa's 54 countries have reached the global target of vaccinating 40 percent of their population by the end of this year, leaving millions of people in our region without protection against COVID-19. This is simply dangerous and untenable," said Dr. Mihigo.