The World Health Organization (WHO) on Sunday criticized the “heavy burdens” that travel bans place on southern African nations and urged countries across the globe not to impose flight bans unless they are “scientifically based” amid concerns over the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron.
In a statement, the public health agency called on countries to “follow science and the International Health Regulations” instead of rushing to impose flight bans, which, the agency said, can drastically affect the livelihoods of people in southern Africa.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the organization said.
“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”
Multiple nations will be joining WHO for a special session of the World Health Assembly this week to discuss how they can collectively prepare and respond better to pandemics. The meeting will also build on their commitments to the International Health Regulations, the agency said.
Scientists are concerned about the new Omicron variant because it has a high number of mutations and spreads rapidly among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.
Little is known about the new variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, and Europe, but South African scientists say it has an unusual combination of mutations and may be able to evade immune responses or make it more transmissible.
WHO officials have said they are monitoring the new variant, also called B.1.1.529, and have labelled it a “variant of concern,” due to its numerous mutations.
In Sunday’s statement, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, praised South Africa for following International Health Regulations and informing them of the new variant as soon as the country’s national laboratory identified it.
“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19,” said Moeti .
“On the eve of a special session on pandemic preparedness, I urge all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions. It is critical that countries which are open with their data are supported as this is the only way to ensure we receive important data in a timely manner,” she added.
Scientists continue to investigate the Omicron variant but still have a long way to go until they understand how it will impact countries across the globe, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, in a press briefing on Thursday.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines, for example,” Van Kerkhove said.
“This is one to watch. I would say we have concerns, but I think you would want us to have concerns…We have people who are on this.”
The United States is slated to impose a travel ban on eight southern African nations starting Monday, while the European Union, Israel, the United Kingdom, and many other countries have done the same due to the spread of the variant.
But the WHO is urging all countries to take a “risk-based and scientific approach” to the new variant and “put in place measures which can limit its possible spread.”
“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,” said Moeti.
[ZH: So is Biden’s plan racist?]
Trump further diminished the U.S. in the eyes of the world by expanding his travel ban. This new “African Ban,” is designed to make it harder for black and brown people to immigrate to the United States. It’s a disgrace, and we cannot let him succeed. https://t.co/oePD5eSAWY
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) February 2, 2020
About the Author
Katabella Roberts is a New York-based reporter for The Epoch Times.