As panic over Omicron – the new Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa this week – led to 600 passengers on flights from South Africa being stranded on the runway at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in the Netherlands for hours without food or water on Friday, the South African government has spoken out strongly against countries that have imposed travel bans against the country.
A statement released by the department of international relations and cooperation yesterday said the bans were akin to punishing the country for being able to detect new variants faster than others.
The ban is likely to have a massive impact on the tourism sector, which was just starting to recover from last year’s hard lockdown.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A combination of South Africa’s capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination programme, backed up by a world-class scientific community, should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.
“South Africa follows and enforces globally recognised Covid-19 health protocols on travel. No infected individuals are permitted to leave the country,” reads the statement.Covid-19 statistics in SA
The department said it had started engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans in an effort to persuade them to reconsider.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said the country “respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens.
We need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise. Our immediate concern is the damage these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries, and to business.”
OMICRON VARIANT WREAKS HAVOC
At least 61 of the passengers who landed in Amsterdam tested positive for Covid-19, and authorities fear that they contracted the Omicron variant.
It has already spread outside southern Africa and its origin is uncertain. German authorities announced yesterday that a traveller from South Africa in Hesse tested positive for this variant. According to British Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid, two Omicron cases were reported in Chelmsford and Nottingham on Monday.
A man who flew from South Africa to Hong Kong also tested positive, and cases were reported among travellers in Israel and Belgium who visited Egypt and Malawi, respectively. Botswana has recorded four cases so far.
As for the drama at Schiphol, passengers heard while in the air that there were problems at their destination.
The captain informed passengers in the middle of a flight on Friday: The Johannesburg flight and also our Cape Town flight cannot enter the Netherlands without any restrictions. What this means is what they are now trying to find out.
Some of the passengers revealed on social media that they were not allowed to disembark for hours at first, and then had to wait up to seven hours in the airport building for tests.
Stephanie Nolen, a health affairs journalist from the The New York Times, was on her way out of South Africa after she had come here to do research on the “incredible work they are doing in observing variants”.
“So I’m in my third hour on the runway at Schiphol. While my flight from Johannesburg was somewhere above Chad, Europe went into variant panic,” she tweeted.
“By the time we landed, we were not allowed to leave the plane. They did not even want to allow a catering truck to bring us water.”
Dutch citizens who tested negative were able to go home under quarantine conditions, while the others were isolated in hotels.
“The whole of South Africa is going to feel it,” said David Frost, the chief executive of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association yesterday.
“Tourism from outside Africa brings in R82 billion annually. That is approximately R225 million per day.”
According to Frost, this sector employs 1.5 million South Africans directly and indirectly.
“About one in seven South Africans depends on tourism to be able to eat tonight,” said an angry Frost. “The government must intervene; many South Africans are without income all over again.”
One of those South Africans is Jakobus Lombard, a Cape wine guide who survived the restrictions of recent months, but says he feels almost “broken” after the latest news.
“We are down and out after this week’s news. We only survived here thanks to my partners, who were able to carry us with soft loans to where the limited help from Ters [the Covid-19 temporary employer/employee relief scheme] could not help.”
Hapiloe Sello, head of marketing for SA National Parks (SANParks), said they were preparing for scores of changes in bookings.
SANParks has decided to exempt foreign travellers from any costs to postpone or change their bookings.
Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu met with role players in the tourism industry on Friday.
“While we are waiting for more scientific certainty about the new variant, its impact on South Africa and the tourism industry is disastrous,” she said.
Sisulu said: Our immediate priority is to protect local tourism over the festive season by taking steps to stop the spread of the virus.
Apart from the tourism industry being turned upside down, sporting events have also been disrupted again.
Four United Rugby Championship matches, in which the Lions, Bulls, Stormers and Sharks were to play on home soil against teams from Wales, Ireland and Italy, were postponed. Next weekend’s local matches have also been cancelled.
Golf’s Sunshine Series and DP World Tour also announced that the Alfred Dunhill Championship, which was to take place in Malelane, Mpumalanga, next month, had been cancelled.
On the cricket front, there are concerns about India’s tour of South Africa. The Indians were to tour the country from next month to January with three tests, three one-day internationals and four T20 matches planned.
The Times of India reports that the Board of Control for Cricket in India must soon decide whether this tour, which could bring in millions of rands for Cricket SA, can continue.
South Africans can expect stricter restrictions and renewed efforts to get them vaccinated.
The country’s daily infection rates are still relatively low, but are picking up speed quickly, most likely due to the Omicron variant.
Medical workers have already called for stricter regulations against mass gatherings.
The national coronavirus command council, on which all Cabinet members serve, hastily met yesterday afternoon.
Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said an announcement would be made after a meeting of the presidential coordinating council. This meeting, with the country’s MECs and mayors of metro councils, is usually President Cyril Ramaphosa’s last consultation before addressing the country on restriction measures.
The problem is that, so far, no one has much information about the efficacy of vaccines against the new variant. This could lead to government deciding not to impose stricter restrictions yet.
More information may be available by Wednesday, said Dr Nicholas Crisp, acting director-general of health.Only 41% of South Africans over the age of 18 have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
This includes 26% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 (the group in which most new infections are occurring), and 64% of people older than 60.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla has not commented on possible restrictions yet. He did mention that a ban on interprovincial travel may be necessary during the festive season.
“Our experts have indicated that movement fuels the spread of the virus,” Phaahla said.
However, all indications are that the Omicron variant is already widespread in South Africa.
Professor Shabir Madhi, vaccine expert and dean of the medical faculty of the University of the Witwatersrand, said on Twitter that a local travel ban would not do anything.
“Really? Has no one paid any attention to the futile exercise of such a ban and many other restrictions in South Africa? And then we want to complain when other countries impose a travel ban on us. Amazing,” Madhi tweeted.
“We strongly recommend that large functions and gatherings be limited. Parties among young people in Pretoria started the current increases,” said SA Medical Association chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee.
“People have to use their heads now and get themselves vaccinated so that they get moderate illness should they contract the virus,” Coetzee said.
Professor Willem Hanekom, head of the Africa Health Research Institute, warned that government would have to consider stricter restrictions on alcohol sales should hospitals become full again.
While some doctors such as Professor Helen Rees, chairperson of the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, have already spoken out in favour of compulsory vaccination, others believe that vaccine passports may be the answer.
Hanekom said a system in which people have to provide proof that they had been vaccinated, to visit restaurants, gyms and theatres, could encourage people to get vaccinated.
Phaahla said on Thursday that South Africa was struggling to get 150 000 people vaccinated per day – well below its 200 000 target. He also said that government was not considering compulsory vaccinations. South Africa currently has 19 million doses of vaccine available – more than it can use.
City Press understands that follow-up doses, or boosters, for South Africans older than 50 will be available next month. Health workers are already receiving booster jabs of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.