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Lazarus Chakwera slams Covid travel ban

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Titus Divala

President Lazarus Chakwera, who is also Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Chairperson, Sunday condemned the international community, especially western countries, for imposing a travel ban on Sadc countries because of the new variant of Covid named Omicron.

Some European countries and the United States (US) have restricted travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries to try to contain the new coronavirus variant.

Reacting to the ban, Chakwera wrote on his Facebook page: “We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did. But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on Sadc countries by the UK [United Kingdom], EU [European Union], US, Australia and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”

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On its part, Israel reported that the new variant—known as B.1.1.529—was detected in a person who returned to Israel from Malawi, reports which quote the country’s health ministry.

Information Minister Gospel Kazako, who is also government spokesperson, concurred with Chakwera, saying the decision had not been made based on science.

“If you look at the countries [that have imposed travel bans on us] themselves, you will find that there is no consistency. One country is banning four countries, another is banning six and another is banning seven. If the decision is based on science, why are they banning different numbers of countries?

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“Did the person in question fly straight from Malawi to Israel? The person must have landed in other countries too before arriving in Israel; so, why are such countries not banned,” he said.

Epidemiologist Titus Divala said the bans were, indeed, not imposed based on research.

“The rise of Omicron (B.1.1.529) cases is very worrying but not strange considering the behaviour of SARS-CoV-2. It is also worth mentioning that Covid mutation rates are often higher with conducive environments presented by unvaccinated people. It, therefore, wouldn’t be a surprise to see new variants on the African continent with our limited access to the vaccine. Another important risk factor is immune-suppression, which can be a result of untreated HIV infection, also a not so uncommon occurrence on the continent.

“While the rise of Omicron (B.1.1.529) is very worrying, it is very unfortunate and strange that the countries are already implementing travel restrictions without clinical data on transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness and severity,” he said.

Presidential Taskforce on Covid co-Chairperson Wilson Chalamira Nkhoma said the committee met last Friday after noting rising numbers of Covid cases and deaths.

Nkhoma also said it was likely that the new variant would respond to all the Covid vaccines a bit less but insisted it was worth getting the vaccines.

“What we are seeing is that this variant called Omicron has the most mutations of all the variants we have seen, which means that the response to the Covid vaccine will be less but we still encourage all those who have not been fully vaccinated to do so,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has warned that the resurgence of Covid in some countries within the Southern African region puts Malawi at “an increased risk” of experiencing the fourth wave of Covid.

Minister responsible, Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda, who is also Presidential Taskforce on Covid Chairpersons, warned that Malawi was at a critical point and that the cases could be from both imported and local transmission.

“We are at a critical point whereby we need to prevent a resurgence of Covid in our country,” said Kandodo Chiponda in the Covid update statement on Saturday.

On Saturday last week, Mwansambo indicated that Omicron is characterised by an increased risk of re-infection as compared to other variants of concern.

Speaking to the BBC, Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance co- Chairperson Ayoade Alakija, who is based in Nigeria, lamented travel restrictions that some European countries and the US have imposed on countries such as Malawi.

Alakija claimed that the ban was based on politics not on science, which she described as wrong.

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