Omicron Travel Bans Violate International Health Rules and Decimate Southern Africa’s Fragile Tourism Industry
Alexandra in Johannesburg during a COVID-related lockdown. Millions of South Africans have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

CAPE TOWN – The Omicron-related travel bans imposed on southern Africa are costing the economically fragile region millions of dollars every day – and countries that introduced them did not follow the process laid out in the International Health Regulations (IHR) adopted by the World Health (WHO) Organization in 2005.

A snap survey of over 600 tourism and hospitality operators in South Africa found that they have lost over $63-million in cancelled bookings since last Thursday when the new COVID-19 variant was announced.

“If the travel bans remain in place, based on the cancellations to date, respondents would lose 78% of their previously expected business levels for the period December to March. This would support in order of 205 000 jobs annually,” according to a statement issued this week by the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa and tourism body SATSA.

Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, said that the city alone was losing an estimated $15million every day in cancelled bookings since the announcement of Omicron.

Over two million South Africans have already lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 34.4% of all adults were now officially unemployed – the highest recorded level ever, Statistics South Africa announced on Tuesday.

Last month, the UK – South Africa’s biggest tourism partner – finally removed South Africa from its red list, while the US did so on 8 November.  International bookings followed and the tourism sector expected to make a modest recovery over the Christmas period – until the identification of Omicron.

Internal Health Regulations require scientific reasons

Botswana’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dr Athaliah Molokomme

Botswana’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dr Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, told Wednesday’s closing session of the World Health Assembly special session that the travel bans were a violation of the very International Health Regulations (IHR) that many member states had urged the assembly to strengthen this week.

Speaking on behalf of the 47 African WHO Member States, Molokomme called for the immediate lifting of the travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries.

“We remain deeply concerned and disappointed by the lack of upholding of collective action, shared responsibility and solidarity. In a globalised and highly interconnected world, locking out a whole sub-region is dangerous and is neither effective nor sustainable,” said Molokomme.

Furthermore, she said that the countries that had jumped to restrict travel – 56 of them, according to the WHO – had not followed the process laid down in the IHR, the only global legally binding rules relating to health emergencies. 

“Member states are required to implement the recommendations in line with the International Health Regulations of 2005 and are supposed to inform the WHO of the travel measures and further provide the scientific and public health rationale when informing the WHO,” Molokomme pointed out. 

According to Article 43 of the IHR, any member state that implements health measures which “significantly interfere with international traffic shall provide to WHO the public health rationale and relevant scientific information for it”. 

WHO needs to be given public health and scientific rationale

The WHO has to be informed “within 48 hours of implementation, of such measures and their health rationale unless these are covered by a temporary or standing recommendation”. 

Significant interference is defined as “refusal of entry or departure of international travellers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods, and the like, or their delay, for more than 24 hours”. 

Once a Member State has informed the WHO of its action, the global body “may request that the State Party concerned to reconsider the application of the measures”.

Ironically, this week’s World Health Assembly special session was dedicated solely to the need for negotiations for a new “convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response” – as most Member States deem the IHR to be inadequate.

Vulnerable are advised to postpone travel

Late Tuesday, the WHO issued an “advice on international traffic” in light of Omicron, advising people who are unwell, not fully vaccinated or recovered from previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are “at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying” to postpone travel to areas with community transmission.

This includes “people aged 60 years or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (eg heart disease, cancer and diabetes)”

However, the WHO stressed that “blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”.

The WHO commended South Africa and Botswana for their surveillance and the speed and transparency with which they notified and shared information with the WHO Secretariat on the Omicron variant in accordance with IHR. 

“WHO calls on all countries to follow the IHR and to show global solidarity in rapid and transparent information sharing and in a joint response to Omicron (as with all other variants), leveraging collective efforts to advance scientific understanding and sharing the benefits of applying newly acquired scientific knowledge and tools”.

It appealed to countries to “apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures in accordance with the IHR, including the latest Temporary Recommendations issued by the WHO Director-General on 26 October”.


Image Credits: Flickr: IMF Photo/James Oatway.

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