South African tourism was just getting back on its feet when local scientists’ discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant prompted a slew of travel curbs that threaten to bring more pandemic gloom to the country’s fragile economy.
At least one billion rand ($61.9mn) in bookings have been cancelled in recent days as various countries reimposed travel restrictions including flight bans, and tourism industry leaders said they feared a new wave of job losses.
“South Africa is being punished for its brilliant work in the field of science,” Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, head of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), said in emailed comments.
“The industry has already lost 470,000 jobs out of 1.5mn and more will be lost due to these travel bans,” he said, adding that the one-billion-rand loss calculated through a TBCSA survey excluded the loss to airlines and of visitor spending.
South Africa’s already weak economy is struggling to regain momentum after it was dealt a further blow by Covid-19.
Unemployment hit a record 34.4% in the second quarter of 2021, with more than 7.8mn people out of work, according to government statistics.
During last year’s first lockdown alone, 3mn jobs were lost and women in the informal sector were particularly hard-hit.
In the tourism industry, foreign visitor numbers dropped by 71% in 2020 from a year earlier to less than 5mn, according to official statistics.
Many hotels and tourism hotspots, such as game reserves and vineyards offering tours and wine tasting, were banking on December holidays during the southern hemisphere summer to bring some relief after a difficult two years.
“We were just about getting started again and this travel ban just knocked us, it has really been a slap in the face,” said Claudia Preston-Thomas, who runs a small bed and breakfast in Somerset-West, a town in the Western Cape province.
“It is incredibly frustrating,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Many South Africans have been angered by tough travel restrictions announced by countries from the United States and Britain to Japan and Israel.
In a national television address on Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the restrictions, which have also been put on poorer neighbouring countries in southern Africa.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said.
South Africa has some of the world’s top epidemiologists and advanced genomic sequencing, which has allowed the country to identify emerging coronavirus variants and their mutations early in their life cycle.
The Omicron variant has since been detected in numerous countries including Belgium, Australia and Hong Kong.
The discovery of the new variant has also reignited debate about global inequality in vaccine access.
Omicron is an example of how the virus will mutate “in the absence of equitable access to the right Covid-19 medical tools”, said advocacy officer Candice Sehoma from medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
MSF has been campaigning for 14 months for the intellectual property (IP) waiver on Covid-19 medical products by a group of high-income countries.
While more than 100 countries at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have agreed to waive the IP, the refusal of others inhibits increased and independent production in low- and middle-income countries, said MSF.
“With millions of lives at stake ... the waiver is needed now more than ever,” Sehoma said in a statement.
Ramaphosa also touched on vaccine inequality during his speech, drawing praise from many South Africans on social media.
“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 said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation
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