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Malawi slams 'Afrophobic' travel bans as Omicron shuts down borders worldwide

·3 min read

Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera has accused Western countries of "Afrophobia" for shutting their borders to his and other neighbouring nations, after South Africa flagged the new Omicron coronavirus variant last week.

Dozens of countries, including Qatar, the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands, have barred flights from southern Africa in a bid to keep the variant, named Omicron, off their shores.

Morocco announced on Sunday it was halting incoming flights for two weeks from Monday, and Angola became first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

Malawi's Chakwera is currently chairing the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) which has seen most of its members blacklisted, sparking outrage.

"We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa's scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did," Chakwera posted on his Facebook page.

"But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia," he said.

A variant of concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated Omicron a variant of concern and is assessing its impact.

It is believed to be highly contagious and behind rising infections in South Africa, the continent's worst-hit country.

Several governments deem the travel bans rushed and unjust, and South Africa said it felt "punished" for sounding the alarm. The country's health minister has described the bans as "draconian".

On Saturday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken praised "South Africa's government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world".

The WHO has called for borders to remain open.

"We must work in solidarity," Botswana's International Affairs Minister Lemogang Kwape said at a Sunday press briefing in the capital Gaborone.

"We are not going to be geo-politicising this virus," he added, when asked to disclose the provenance of Botswana's first detected Omicron cases, dating to November 7.

Botswana has since picked up 19 cases of Omicron.

Race against time

France has yet to register cases of the Omicron variant but it has been identified in a number of European countries.

Dutch health authorities said they have identified at least 13 cases of Omicron among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for cornavirus after arriving from South Africa.

On Sunday evening both Germany and the UK had identified three cases each.

Britain's health secretary said new Covid rules will be enforced from Tuesday. Mask-wearing will again be mandatory in shops and on public transport in England. And all arriving passengers will have to take a PCR test and self-isolate until negative.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday: "We are in a race against time," to understand the strain. She added that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks "to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations".

Scientists in South Africa said they had detected the new variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with three for Beta or two for Delta – the strain that sent millions worldwide back into lockdown this autumn.

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