Health Minister says South Africa has enough experience to deal with the new variant
The South African Minister of Health said there was “absolutely no reason to panic” about the new variant of the Omicron coronavirus, despite an increase in cases.
“We’ve been here before,” added Joe Phaahla, referring to the beta variant detected in South Africa last December.
South Africa has also condemned the travel bans imposed on the country, saying they should be lifted immediately.
Omicron has been classified as a “variant of concern”. Early evidence suggests he has an increased risk of re-infection.
The highly mutated variant was detected in South Africa earlier this month and then reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) last Wednesday.
The variant is responsible for most of the infections found in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, over the past two weeks.
The number of cases “seems to be increasing in almost every province” of the country, according to the WHO.
South Africa reported 2,800 new infections on Sunday, an increase from the daily average of 500 the week before.
Government adviser and epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim said he expected the number of cases to rise to over 10,000 a day by the end of the week and hospitals to come under pressure over the two to the next three weeks.
Dr Phaahla said he wanted to “reiterate that there is absolutely no reason to panic” because this “is not new territory for us”.
“We now have more than 20 months of experience in terms of Covid-19, various variants and waves,” he added during a press briefing.
On Monday, Japan became the latest country to reinstate strict border restrictions, barring all foreigners from entering from November 30.
The UK, EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans on South Africa and other regional states.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the isolation of southern Africa, adding that “the African people cannot be blamed for the immoral level of immunization available in Africa”.
The bans and restrictions have left the plans of many travelers on hold.
South African Annalee Veysey, who is undergoing cancer treatment in South Africa, expected to be reunited with her family in the UK in early December.
She has been separated from them for the past 15 months due to previous travel restrictions and her treatment.
“It’s been almost two years of my life that I missed with my family. Especially if you’ve been on a journey with cancer, you find out what your family means to you, ”she told the BBC, adding that she felt“ desperate ”.
Hannah Day is stuck in Pretoria. She flew to South Africa last week after learning that her son, who lives there, was in hospital after being bitten by a snake.
He is recovering now, but Ms Day has to return to the UK to work. “I can isolate myself, but I cannot afford to pay for the quarantine,” she told the BBC.
The WHO has warned of countries hastily imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “science-based, risk-based approach.”
The global organization’s director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said on Sunday: “With the Omicron variant now detected in several parts of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity.”
However, Rwanda and Angola are among the African states that have announced a restriction on flights to and from South Africa.
South African Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela called their decision “very regrettable, very unfortunate, and I would even say sad.”
In a speech on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the bans would not be effective in preventing the spread of the variant.
“The only thing the travel ban will do will be further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic,” he said.
The regulations in force in South Africa make it compulsory to wear a face covering in public and limit indoor gatherings to 750 people and outdoor gatherings to 2,000.
Mr Ramaphosa said South Africa would not impose new restrictions, but “would undertake broad consultations to make vaccination compulsory for specific activities and locations”.
There is no shortage of vaccines in South Africa itself, and Mr Ramaphosa has urged more people to get bitten, saying it remains the best way to fight the virus.
Health experts said Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, has entered a fourth wave and most hospital admissions have been in unvaccinated people.
Omicron has now been detected in a number of countries around the world, including the UK, Germany, Australia and Israel.