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'Scientifically unjustified': S. African president calls for reversal of Omicron travel bans

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa blasts rich Western countries for imposing new travel bans against his nation. (File photo)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has lambasted Western countries for new travel bans enacted against his country and its neighbors over the new COVID-19 variant Omicron.

Ramaphosa’s comments on Sunday came as the highly mutated variant, which emerged first in South Africa earlier this month, continued to spread across the world, with fresh cases identified in the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.

Many countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbors in an attempt to prevent the new COVID-19 variant from reaching their lands, which has angered the African countries.

Ramaphosa said he was "deeply disappointed" by the action, calling on countries to "immediately and urgently" reverse the restrictions, insisting that the decision was "not informed by science."

"We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions," Ramaphosa said on Sunday, in his first address to the nation following the detection of a new variant.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated Omicron a “variant of concern” that it says is potentially more contagious than previous variants.

The global health body has warned against countries hastily imposing travel curbs, saying they should look to a "risk-based and scientific approach."

The South African president in his remarks on Sunday slammed the G20 countries for abandoning their commitments made at a recent summit in Rome to support the recovery of tourism sector in developing countries.

"This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of the G20 countries in Rome last month," Ramaphosa said.

"Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay,” he emphasized, calling the restrictions “unjustified."

Ramaphosa further called on rich countries to stop fueling vaccine inequality, describing jabs as the "most powerful tool" to limit Omicron's transmission.

He said South African officials would not be considering economic lockdown restrictions for the time being, owing to availability of vaccines for those aged 12 and above.

The South African president added that his cabinet has decided that the country would remain at low risk alert level, but hastened to add that they were considering "measures that make vaccination a condition for access to workplaces, public events, public transport and public establishments."

The WHO has said that it could take "days to several weeks" to understand whether it is more dangerous than the earlier variants, while warning against hasty travel bans.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti.

South Africa, the African continent's most industrialized country, is struggling with slow economic growth and more than 34 percent unemployment rate.

The travel curbs are likely to deal another major blow to its tourism industry, which had set high hopes on the upcoming southern hemisphere summer.

The country is Africa's worst hit by coronavirus pandemic, with around 2.9 million cases and 89,797 deaths reported to date.

Omicron is believed to be fueling a rise in infections, with 1,600 new cases recorded on average in the past seven days, compared to 500 the previous week.

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