The African Union (AU) has called for the urgent rescinding of selective travel bans imposed on its member states, highlighting the adverse effects these bans will have on the continent – including on lives and livelihoods, lack of access to essential medical supplies and limited capacity for scientists to continue to study the virus.
In a statement issued yesterday (Tuesday, December 7), the AU pointed out that, as genomic sequencing efforts have intensified globally, community transmission of Omicron has been evidenced by reports of cases with no travel history to the African countries with travel bans implemented against them – including in the United Kingdom, the European Union (e.g. Germany, Norway, France Denmark) and the US.
“These reports indicate that Omicron had spread and was already circulating globally by the time the variant was first detected in South Africa,” reads the statement.
“However, despite the widespread distribution of Omicron cases globally, the majority of border closures solely target flights to and from South Africa and neighbouring countries in Southern Africa, some of which have no evidence of the Omicron variant and relatively low daily COVID-19 case numbers.”
The AU highlighted that these travel and entry bans, which limit the free movement of people and goods, have had an immediate and significant negative impact in the region as they lead to:
- Adverse impact on the economy, which will negatively affect the lives and livelihoods of populations concerned.
- Limited capacity to access essential medical supplies needed to respond to the ongoing upsurge of cases in South Africa.
- Limited capacity for Southern African researchers and scientists to access the reagents needed to monitor spread of the Omicron variant and to investigate and characterise its impact on transmissibility, disease severity and possible evasion from vaccines.
Scientists’ hands ‘chopped off’
To illustrate the above point made by the AU, Mia Malan, editor-in-chief and executive director for the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, said in an op-ed piece yesterday that Tulio de Oliveira, who led the team of South African scientists that identified the new Omicron Covid variant in the county two weeks ago, had been panicking as he was rapidly running out of reagents – the chemicals needed to sequence genomes of positive test results to identify new cases of the variant.
“But two days after the announcement of his team’s results, De Oliveira’s means of importing the chemicals that he needed to help his country keep track of the Omicron variant had been blocked by the nations who stock them.
“Because of several Western governments’ travel bans imposed on southern African countries – out of fear that they would bring a new variant into their countries that was in all likelihood already there – the planes that delivered De Oliveira’s essential products became rare,” she wrote.
She said the bioinformatician’s team was providing the world with crucial genomic surveillance data, but their hands had now been chopped off. According to her, developed countries had punished them for their ability to identify the new variant exceptionally fast and their government’s willingness – and courage – to almost instantly share the data with the world.
The African Union further emphasised that penalising member states for ensuring timely and transparent data dissemination in accordance with international health regulations acted as a disincentive for information sharing in the future, potentially posing a threat to health security on the continent and globally.
“Equitable access to vaccines is key to immunise populations, control transmission of the virus and prevent the emergence of new variants. International efforts should accordingly focus on increasing vaccination coverage on the continent,” said the AU.
Others weigh in on ‘travel apartheid’
United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said travel restrictions imposed over COVID-19 that isolate any one country or region were "not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective".
He said the only way to reduce the risk of transmission, while allowing for travel and economic engagement, was to repeatedly test travellers, "together with other appropriate and truly effective measures".
"We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let's use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable."
The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) also highlighted his concern last week that some countries were introducing blanket measures against the Omicron coronavirus variant that may not be necessary and penalised African nations unfairly. "I well understand the concern of all countries to protect their citizens against a variant that we don't yet fully understand," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"But I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities."
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, agreed. “With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”
Iata Director General, Willie Walsh, said in his blog last week that travel restrictions were not going to stop the spread but that they would do “real harm to people and economies”.
The airline representative body has called on governments worldwide to simplify measures to safely and efficiently facilitate international travel – and eliminate travel barriers for those fully vaccinated.
In its newly released policy paper, From Restart to Recovery: A Blueprint for Simplifying Travel, Iata identifies several points crucial for travel recovery: simplified health protocols, digital solutions to process health credentials, and COVID-19 measures being kept proportionate to risk levels.