Dr. Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the U.N. health body, said Thursday that ultimately, travel bans that were recently implemented to target southern African countries can only buy time for other nations.
“If you do something as drastic as a travel ban, use it well to buy time,” Harris told CNN. “But we do know that it won’t keep cases out. Usually, by the time where countries are aware that there is a risk of importation, that’s already happened.”
Last week, WHO designated Omicron a variant of concern but drew criticism for skipping over naming the new strain “Xi,” the following letter of the Greek alphabet, with some speculating that the move was meant to placate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and leader Xi Jinping.
Instead, WHO said that “Xi was not used because it is a common surname and [the] WHO best practices for naming new diseases … suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”
And starting last Friday, several countries, including the European Union, issued travel bans on eight southern African nations after Omicron cases were found in South Africa and Botswana. Starting Monday, the United States and more countries implemented travel bans on the region, while some—including Japan and Israel—banned all foreign travel.
Omicron cases have been detected already in Israel, the United States, Canada, several European nations, and more outside Africa.
Earlier in the week, top South African officials resoundingly criticized the recent travel curbs. On Nov. 29, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said there should be an end to what he called “unscientific” and “discriminatory” travel bans.
“This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of the G-20 countries in Rome last month,” he said in a televised address.
So far, chair of the South African Medical Association Dr. Angelique Coetzee has told media outlets that Omicron patients are showing “extremely mild” COVID-19 symptoms. Worldwide, there have been no reported deaths from the new variant.
“The majority of what we are presenting to primary health care practitioners are extremely mild cases, so mild to moderate. And so, these patients, it means they don’t need to be hospitalized for now,” Coetzee said earlier this week.
Urging other countries to not panic, Coetzee said that “we’re not saying this is not going to be a disease going forward that’s going to cause severe disease,” adding that “if this disease can cause to more than the majority of people mild symptoms, easily treatable at home, no need for admission, that’s a first prize.”