On Friday, November 26, the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) issued a statement asking the United Kingdom government to reconsider its decision to halt all flights from Southern Africa. The Association said that while it recognizes every nation’s right to impose whatever measures it sees fit to help combat the spread of the coronavirus, the UK’s decision appears to have been hasty.
The move by the United Kingdom to place South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland) on its Red List comes after the discovering of a new COVID-19 mutation. Named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization (WHO), the new mutant strain of COVID-19 is a variant of concern as early evidence suggests it causes an increased reinfection risk.
The new Omicron strain is a significant concern
The new strain was first discovered in South Africa on November 24, and there are reports of people infected with the variant turning up in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel. As a protective measure, the United Kingdom has barred anyone who has recently traveled to Southern Africa from entering the country unless they are UK or Irish nationals or UK residents.
— Airlines Association of Southern Africa (@AirlinesAssocof) November 26, 2021
When speaking about the United Kingdoms decision in its statement, AASA CEO, Aaron Munetsi, said,
“With its announcement, the UK is delivering a body-blow to our region’s travel and tourism sector. It puts businesses, as well as tens of thousands of jobs and many more livelihoods, at risk. The business and leisure air travel industry in Southern Africa has only just begun to see green shoots emerge as governments have increasingly begun to relax and look to align and simplify their travel requirements and procedures. However, the UK’s unilateral step is a major setback that sets a worrying precedent.”
The EU, Canada, and the US have also restricted travel
After the United Kingdom placed Southern African countries on its Red List, the European Union and Canada quickly followed suit, closing their borders to people from certain African countries. Likewise, the United States announced that only US citizens and residents would be allowed to travel from the region from Monday. In a statement about the decision, American President Joe Biden called the move a “precautionary measure” taken until more is known about the variant.
Scientists busy studying the new variant say there is still much to learn about it and how transmissible it is. However, preliminary evidence suggests that the Omicron variant carries a higher risk of reinfection than other strains of the virus. According to reports in the news, Omicron is the most heavily mutated version of the virus to date which means vaccines created to combat the original coronavirus may not be as effective.
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South Africa is being hit hard
Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the travel industry to its knees, the commercial airline industry in South Africa supported close to 472,000 jobs across the economy. It contributed $9.4 billion to the economy, equating to 3.2% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
As a result of travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19, Southern Africa’s connectivity with the rest of the world fell by 80%. Before the United Kingdom announcement, air travel had recovered to 40% of its pre-COVID-19 traffic.
What do you think about the new travel ban? Are countries being too hasty, or is it the right thing to do? Please tell us what you think in the comments.