The South African government has said that it is being “punished” for detecting the Omicron variant, and that its tourism-dependent economy is being affected.

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news Coronavirus Sunday, November 28, 2021 - 09:37

The new, potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has popped up in more European countries, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread. The UK on Saturday, November 27, tightened its rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases. New cases were confirmed on Saturday in Germany and Italy, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant has been found in travellers.

In the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, said he would not be surprised if the Omicron variant was already in the United States, too. “We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than five million lives around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant Delta variant.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take targeted and precautionary measures after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.

Read: New COVID variant named Omicron, classified as 'variant of concern' by WHO

The British government also added four more countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia — onto the country's travel red list from Sunday. Six others, including Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.

In light of the Omicron variant, several countries have begun to impose travel bans on those travelling from South Africa. However, South Africa on Saturday said that it was being "punished" for its “advanced ability” to detect new COVID-19 variants early.

Read: Omicron variant: PM Modi tells officials to review easing of international travel curbs

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in a statement urged world leaders not to implement knee-jerk policy decisions in response to the detection of the Omicron variant. The latest round of travel bans is "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker. Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.

The DIRCO pointed out that new variants had been detected in other countries as well and "each of those cases had no recent links with Southern Africa".

However, "the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in southern Africa," it said.

DIRCO said its officials are in discussion with the countries that have banned travel to and from South Africa to dissuade them from continuing the restrictions.

Watch: What we know about the Omicron variant

Foreign minister Naledi Pandor also slammed the UK and other countries for their move to impose a travel ban on South Africa.

“Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise,” she said. “Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and businesses,” Pandor added.

Along with South Africa, its neighbouring states — Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Angola — have also been slapped with travel bans, which has hit their economies which are largely reliant on tourism.

The new coronavirus variant B1.1.529, first detected in South Africa this week, was on Friday designated as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which named it Omicron. A variant of concern is the WHO's top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.

Countries around the world are introducing travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries in an effort to contain Omicron's spread, including the UK, Mauritius, Israel, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the US, Canada and the Netherlands.

Many other countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.

In India, the government has asked all states and Union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where the new variant has been detected.

(With inputs from AP)

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