‘Absolute chaos’ in South Africa as flights grounded over Omicron

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New Omicron coronavirus variant leaves South Africans in isolation as countries impose restrictions on travelers from the region.

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Johannesburg, South Africa – Distrust and confusion washed away in South Africa as the announcement of the discovery of the Omicron COVID-19 variant grounded flights and fears of a tougher lockdown in Africa’s most developed economy grew.

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Flights from the country to the United States, the United Kingdom and countries in Europe were swiftly banned after South African scientists on Thursday officially announced the discovery of the virus strain.

“It’s complete chaos. No one can tell us in terms of travel at this point,” said passenger Steve Lawrence, who was stranded at OR Tambo, one of Africa’s busiest airports.

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“Things are changing moment by moment and we are in limbo. We had planned to be in the United States for the month of December – and now we are stuck.”

Daily coronavirus infections have increased 13-fold since the beginning of November, with 3,220 new cases reported on Saturday. The eight deaths in South Africa since the start of the pandemic have brought the total to 89,791.

Around 600 passengers on two KLM flights from Johannesburg to Amsterdam were left stranded on the runway at Schiphol airport after panic following the announcement.

“It is naive for developed countries to believe that they can stop this type of spread with a complete ban on countries in southern Africa. South African vaccinologist Shabbir Madhi told Al Jazeera that the virus has already spread in these societies. have found their way from individuals who have not come into contact with or have come into contact with anyone from southern Africa.

“The fact that it was discovered here does not make it a South African variant – it was only discovered here. In South Africa we have the world’s best COVID sequencing capabilities based on our experience treating HIV and TB.” We have been ahead of the game for some time now and thus we are victims of our own success.

The tourism industry has suffered a setback with bookings directly canceled following the announcement of the sudden closure of flights.

“I am absolutely shocked. Everything was fine when we woke up on Friday morning – now within 48 hours we have been banned and we are experiencing multiple cancellations,” said Manuela, owner of Maziki Safari Lodge in the North West Province Palmar told Al Jazeera.

South African tourism sector lost one At $10bn in bookings in 2020, and projected to lose around $10m every week, flights are suspended from major foreign tourist markets due to a drop in foreign visitors.

“We have a good local tourism market, but if all our foreign tourists cancel we will be really devastated,” said Palmer.

A petrol attendant stands next to the headline of a newspaper in Pretoria, South Africa, on Saturday. [Denis Farrell/AP]

‘Horrible repeat’

The South African tourism sector is one of the main employers in the country, providing jobs to 4.5 percent of the entire population and adding up to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) annually.

Frank Leia of Honest Travel Experience told Al Jazeera, “It feels like a terrible repeat of a terrible movie.”

“This industry was just starting to come out of this crisis and even after two years we have no solution for this virus and it is affecting all of us again.”

Lobbying for the lifting of the ban began furiously with the South African government and the private sector announcing flight restrictions to be “punished for telling the truth”.

The Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA) said it was working with South Africa’s government to lift the ban or challenge them in the courts.

“We’re not going to lie down and let this happen to us,” FEDHASA chairperson Rosemary Anderson told Al Jazeera.

“As an industry we are going to work with the government and other industry bodies to challenge this legally. We believe we will be able to talk scientifically to show the UK and other countries that it doesn’t make sense and it’s not okay.

The South African government said any travel restrictions on the country were directed “incorrectly” as the World Health Organization (WHO) also called for calm.

“New variants have been detected in other countries. Each of those cases has no recent association with southern Africa,” Health Minister Joe Fahla told a news conference on Friday.

“We think that some of the leaders of countries are looking for scapegoats to deal with the problem around the world.”

South Africa is now gearing up for even tighter local COVID restrictions, with President Cyril Ramaphosa set to address the nation on Sunday evening after meeting with the country’s Coronavirus Command Council.

South Africa previously implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, imposing a complete ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes and restricting inter-provincial travel.

Only 23.8 percent of the South African population has been fully vaccinated while the average for the rest of the continent is only 7 percent.

“If the government wants higher restrictions then they are deliberately ignoring their effects – the lockdown has not stopped the infection. It has only slowed them down,” Madhi said.

He said, ‘If one else applies, it will be a political decision, not a scientific one. Any action needs to be measured and practical and focussed on areas where medical resources are coming under pressure from the rise in infections. ,

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