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Travel restrictions discriminatory: SADC

Travel bans imposed on southern African countries must be immediately lifted as they are unjustified and discriminatory, countries across the region have said.

In a statement, Southern Africa said the detection of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 by local scientists does not mean that the strain originated in the region. The regional statement was issued by South Africa on behalf of Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe at the Second Special Session of the World Health Assembly, which started on November 29 and ends today. The statement demanded that Covid-19 be “grounded in science, transparent reporting, collective action and solidarity”.

The European Union, UK, US and other countries have imposed strict travel restrictions on countries in the region, including Zimbabwe, after scientists in Botswana and South Africa isolated the new variant. Routine genomic sequencing of samples collected on November 11 in Botswana, and on November 14 in South Africa, identified the new variant. This led to many countries rushing to impose travel bans on Southern Africa.

However, the same variant has been reported in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium. Authorities in the Netherlands yesterday said the variant had been present in the country before travel bans were announced. The prohibitions have already disrupted the region’s response to the pandemic, with health authorities unable to travel and South Africa warning that there may be a shortage of the reagents that are crucial in Covid-19 testing.

In its statement, the region said experience shows that travel bans do not have any impact in stopping the spread of variants.

“What has yielded meaningful outcomes, however, is implementing proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces and getting vaccinated,” the statement reads.

Calling the travel bans unjustified, the group expressed concern on the widening measures to isolate African countries. The group also pointed out that the cases identified in the SADC region have shown only mild to moderate symptoms, with no severe disease treated so far.

“We find these travel bans discriminatory, in light of the fact that the same travel bans were not imposed on other parts of the world where the very same variant has been identified. We call for the lifting of these travel restrictions that have been imposed on our region,” the countries said.

The group pressed upon member states to implement recommendations made by the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-Cov-2 Virus (TAG-VE), which has called for increased surveillance. Further, the southern African countries said scientists that have managed to identify the variant early due to live or active surveillance, need to be rewarded with support and solidarity, instead of being punished through the imposition of measures such as travel bans.

“These measures have negative implications to our economies which are recovering from the pandemic. We also believe that these recommendations will allow us to learn more about this new variant of concern in order to make more informed evidence-based decisions that will effectively curb the spread of Covid-19.”

As a recommendation, the group reinforced the need to strengthen the leadership role of WHO for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. It called for a globally coordinated response guided by principles of collective, mutual responsibility, accountability, solidarity and equity.

Malawian President and chairman of Sadc, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, recently condemned the imposition of travel bans on southern African nations saying “Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia”.

“We are concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did. But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on Sadc countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia and others are uncalled for,” President Chakwera said in a Sunday Facebook post.

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