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Travel bans and the Omicron variant are hurting southern Africa

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Travel bans and the Omicron variant are hurting southern Africa

South Africans feel unjustly punished for their country’s scientific rigour

SOUTH AFRICA had a rotten 2021. Corrupt politicians plundered covid-19 relief funds, deadly riots took more than 330 lives and rolling power outages hobbled the economy. Yet South African scientists have deservedly won plaudits this year. It was local virologists and epidemiologists who had honed their skills studying another virus, HIV, who discovered the new Omicron variant of covid. When cases spiked unexpectedly, they studied samples, determined that it was a new and worrying variant and—most importantly—shared their findings immediately.

No good deed goes unpunished. Hours after Joe Phaahla, the health minister, announced that South Africa had identified the new variant, Britain shut its airports to flights from South Africa and several other southern African countries. America and the European Union soon followed suit, banning flights and closing their borders to travellers from the region. Many South Africans felt they were being unfairly punished for their country being scientifically rigorous and open. It is far from clear that Omicron originated in South Africa. And it may already be spreading in the rich countries that have isolated the region, southern Africans complain. Moreover, some South African scientists have pointed out that the travel ban may also be hampering the race to learn more about Omicron by blocking supplies of the reagents they need to study it.

South Africa continued to restrict large gatherings and make the wearing of face masks compulsory well after many other countries had lifted restrictions. Partly because of this South Africa was, until recently, recording less than one-tenth as many daily covid cases as Britain. “It boggles the mind that people in the United Kingdom can pile into a full football stadium and in the United States it appears as though it’s business as usual, but as soon as something happens on African soil, those countries go into a hysterical tailspin,” says David Moseley, an events co-ordinator in South Africa.

The new travel restrictions will wallop the region’s tourism industry, just as hotels, game reserves and wine estates were preparing for their busiest months of the year. Over December and January millions of tourists normally escape northern winters to sip chardonnay in the vineyards around Cape Town, sun themselves on beaches and photograph lions and elephants in the game parks farther north. Tourism contributes about 3% of South Africa’s GDP and much more to some others in the region, such as Namibia (11%) and Botswana (13%). Last year covid and travel restrictions cut foreign visits to South Africa by 71% and threw some 300,000 people out of work. Because of the drop in tourism and the imposition of lockdowns the economy shrank by about 6% last year. Thousands of small businesses collapsed, including AWOL Tours, a cycle-tourism firm based in Cape Town run by Sally de Jager. She had hoped the uphill slog of rebuilding it would get a boost from a southern summer full of bookings. But since the travel bans were imposed she has had an email inbox full of cancellations.

The ripples may spread far beyond southern Africa to countries such as Kenya and Uganda that do not yet face travel restrictions. Tamsin Corcoran, the managing director of New African Territories, which takes reservations for a dozen small safari camps, said she had received only one cancellation but she was seeing “lots of hesitation” from other clients. “People are getting a bit nervous,” she says. In Uganda, the industry has recovered only to about 40% of its pre-pandemic level, reckons Gloria Tumwesigye, a tourism consultant in Kampala, the capital.

Even as Ms de Jager and other tour operators face a quiet Christmas, South Africa’s health workers are gearing up for another December of mayhem as covid’s fourth wave washes over the country. Although the number of confirmed covid cases had been rising steadily over the past few weeks in Gauteng, the province that is home to Johannesburg, epidemiologists had expected a relatively mild peak. Modelling suggested that fewer people would end up in hospital than during a vicious third wave that crested in July. In part this was because antibody tests suggested that in many parts of the country a whopping 59-69% of people had already been infected. And around a quarter of people have been fully vaccinated.


The emergence of Omicron, which seems to spread easily, will probably upset those estimates. “It looks like it's spreading quickly but there’s so much that’s unknown, specifically if it will evade the vaccines and its severity,” says a doctor at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. “It will probably take two more weeks until we know what the implications will be.”

For some South Africans the most immediate concern was not the virus, but booze. In previous lockdowns the government banned the sale of alcohol to prevent drunks from occupying precious beds in hospitals. Although this did indeed reduce hospital admissions from car accidents and drunken fights, it also taught many that lockdowns divide people into two groups: the quick and the thirsty. Moments after the government said that President Cyril Ramaphosa would address the nation the following evening, long queues formed outside liquor stores.

As it happens, he did not impose a full lockdown or booze ban. Instead he urged people to get vaccinated. He also complained about the travel bans imposed on the region, arguing that they are “not informed by science”. It is difficult to fault governments elsewhere for trying to slow the spread of the new variant, after they were roundly criticised for having failed to act quickly when covid first emerged. But, in turn, South Africa deserves more than just praise for having informed the world quickly about the new variant. Incentives matter. If other countries are to be encouraged to do the same with future variants, rich countries should lift travel bans as quickly as it is safe to do so. Many South Africans think rich countries should go further, and compensate South Africa for taking an economic hit that may well spare the rich world a great deal of pain.

Πηγή : economist.com
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