The coronavirus variant Omicron has sparked a global spree of travel bans and restrictions in recent days on international arrivals from several African countries.
Multiple countries have imposed travel curbs in order to slow the spread of the new variant.
Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled Omicron a “variant of concern”, it was also quick to stress it was not one to panic about.
WHO stated that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.
In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.
All countries should ensure that the measures are regularly reviewed and updated when new evidence becomes available on the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of Omicron or any other variant of concern.
National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered risk mitigation approach to potentially delay and/or reduce the exportation or importation of the new variant.
Such measures may include screening of passengers prior to travelling and/or upon arrival, including via the use of Sars-CoV-2 testing or the application of quarantine to international travellers. These measures, nonetheless, need to be defined following a thorough risk assessment process informed by the local epidemiology in departure and destination countries and by the health system and public health capacities in the countries of departure, transit and arrival.
All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers’ dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the International Health Regulations.
It is noteworthy that the World Health Organisation complimented South Africa and Botswana for their capacities in surveillance and sequencing and for the speed and transparency with which they notified and shared information with the WHO secretariat on the Omicron variant in accordance with the International Health Regulations (IHR).
These actions have allowed other countries to rapidly adjust their response measures in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. WHO calls on all countries to follow the IHR and to show global solidarity in rapid and transparent information sharing and in a joint response to Omicron (as with all other variants), leveraging collective efforts to advance scientific understanding and sharing the benefits of applying newly acquired scientific knowledge and tools.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has already called on countries to “immediately and urgently” reverse scientifically “unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the new Covid-19 variant.
Ramaphosa warned that the travel ban would “further damage the economies and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic”.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” noted WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.
Some countries seem to be responding to the risks of the new coronavirus variant in emergency mode causing fear among the travelling public.
In the overall interest of the global economy, therefore it is essential we require a co-ordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine.
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