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Health minister to vent South Africa’s outrage over travel ban at World Health Assembly

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2021/11/29 Estelle Ellis

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Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla said he would deliver a statement the World Health Assembly expressing the government’s anger and outrage over a series of travel bans instituted by other countries after local scientists identified the Omicron variant of the coronavirus last week.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said he will present a statement at the World Health Assembly on pandemic preparedness to express South Africa’s outrage over an increasing number of travel bans after local scientists identified a new variant of the coronavirus.

The new variant was named Omicron by the World Health Organization on Friday and has been identified as a variant of concern. It has an unprecedented number of mutations and infectious disease specialists have indicated they are not yet sure what some of the mutations will do.

On Monday morning Phaahla said there was no basis for a travel ban.

Since the announcement travel bans have been placed on South Africa by the US, the UK, Canada, Israel, the European Union, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Brazil and Guatemala, along with specific bans from the Netherlands and Germany, among others. Mauritius and the Seychelles have also banned travel from South Africa. 

“We are engaging with other countries to convince them that it is unnecessary. We are supported by the WHO. I had an engagement on the request of the US secretary for health and a high-level team over the weekend. He expressed his appreciation of our medical scientists and our stance to share the information as soon as we could. He pledged support to us.

“My response was that we appreciate his support. But I said the actions of your government does not say that to our people. I said what you can do is to say that the travel bans are just making things more difficult and it is in contradiction of what you are saying.” 

[caption id="attachment_1110722" align="alignnone" width="720"] © Provided by Daily Maverick A woman tries to get help from a Virgin Atlantic staff member following the cancellation of her flight to London at OR Tambo Airport on Friday, 26 November 2021. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)[/caption]

He said President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor and her department were engaging with countries that had instituted travel bans against South Africa. 

The head of public diplomacy in the department, Clayson Monyela, said the Mauritius travel ban was the most urgent.

“A plane took off from South Africa to Mauritius and while it was airborne a decision was taken by authorities to impose a mandatory quarantine to all visitors from South Africa,” he said.

“The update is that all of them have been processed. The tourist groups have been sent to hotels for quarantine and the cost will be covered by the Mauritius government. Resident permit holders have been sent to government facilities,” he said.

Monyela said they were informed by Mauritius that there will be further restrictions on South African flights with immediate effect on Monday.

“No incoming  flights from South Africa are allowed.”

He said some South Africans were stranded in capitals around the world, and he urged them and their families to contact their nearest embassy or consulate for help.

Monyela said it was regrettable – sad, in fact – to have to talk about restrictions placed on South Africa by other African countries.

“Some of these countries received vaccine donations from South Africa,” he said. 

“Travel bans must be released immediately,” Monyela added, expressing hope that the impasse can be solved as soon as possible.

Regarding the UK, he said South Africa was still on the Red List and even though a small number of flights had resumed it was for UK citizens and holders of residents’ permits to go home.

Phaahla said their announcement after South African scientists identified the Omicron variant last week were guided by public health.

“If you discover something that is a threat to life, whether it is Ebola in West Africa, typhoid fever or any other disease, especially an infectious disease, we are obliged to report it so that the WHO can alert member states,” he said.

While many people felt they were in too great a hurry and their silence could have avoided the travel bans, it would have been detrimental to South Africans.

“We did not want South African citizens to live in false security,” the minister said.

Following reports that travellers who presented negative PCR tests at OR Tambo International Airport tested positive for the virus after arrival in the Netherlands, Dr Ann von Gottberg from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said she does not believe their PCR testing failed.

She said it was a sign of the high number of people infected. 

She explained that between the first PCR test in South Africa and the test in the Netherlands it was likely that the virus had incubated, but added that they must explore the reasons for this. 

“I don’t think it is a failure of our laboratories,” she said. DM/MC

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