South Africa’s top diplomat to Australia has accused the Australian federal government of being discriminatory towards African countries after the country imposed travel bans over the new Omicron variant of the CCP virus.
Australia suspended flights from nine southern African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique, after the new Omicron variant was detected on the continent.
All travellers from the region other than Australian citizens and permanent residents have been banned. The new variant also resulted in a two-week delay before the return of international students and working visa holders, who are now set to return from Dec. 15.
Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s high commissioner to Australia, urged Australia to overturn the travel ban, arguing that a large number of Omicron cases are being recorded in other areas in the world and are not limited to Africa. He also said that South Africa is recording fewer cases than some countries, such as the United Kingdom.
“We believe it is discrimination because the only difference is these countries [on the travel ban list] are on the African continent. The others are not,” van Schalkwyk told ABC Radio on Monday.
He also said that South Africa acted as a good international citizen by informing the world of the Omicron variant at the earliest possible time.
“You may recall that when China was alleged to not be transparent, Australia led the campaign and they actually laid down the gold standard of what transparency means,” he said, referring to Australia being the first to require an investigation into the origin of COVID-19 in China.
“South Africa acted 100 percent in terms of that gold standard, and the immediate response was a travel ban.”
“The ban is unfair. There is no evidence the ban works. The World Health Organisation confirms that,” the high commissioner said.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has also described the travel bans imposed on African countries as “discriminatory, arbitrary, and unscientific.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against shutting borders to countries reporting new COVID-19 variants last week.
“We don’t like to see that level of restriction because that really punishes (those countries),” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told Sky News. “It makes other countries less comfortable about being so helpful to the rest of the world.”
The WHO’s chief scientist urged the public not to panic over Omicron.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious not panic because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at the WHO, said in an interview at the Reuters Next conference.
“Delta accounts for 99 percent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible but it’s not possible to predict.”
Australia has so far recorded 17 Omicron cases, with 15 detected in New South Wales (NSW), two in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and one in the Northern Territory.