Covid-19

OMICRON VARIANT

Ramaphosa keeps South Africa on Level 1, slams travel bans as ‘unjustified and not informed by science’

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on developments in the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic follows meetings of the National Coronavirus Command Council, the President’s Coordinating Council and Cabinet.Photo:Koapno Tlape/GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night dangled the prospect of no further restrictions to South Africans if enough people get vaccinated – and added that a task team will investigate mandatory vaccines.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that South Africa will remain at Alert Level 1, at least for the next week, after the country experienced a sharp and sudden increase in positive coronavirus cases, mostly in Gauteng. 

However, he warned that harsher restrictions would have to be implemented if South Africans failed to increase the vaccination rate. 

Last week, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla said the vaccination rate had fallen to below 130,000 a day – a far cry from the goal of 300,000 a day set by the president. 

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa sharply criticised countries that instituted travel restrictions on a number of southern African countries after scientists identified the Omicron variant of the virus in samples from Gauteng. 

“The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue,” he said. 

Between Saturday and Sunday, another 3,220 positive cases of coronavirus infections were identified in SA, with Gauteng, which appears to be at the centre of the new outbreak, having 10,542 active cases. KwaZulu-Natal has seen the second-sharpest increase countrywide and has 4,609 active cases. 

“We have seen an average of 1,600 new cases in the last seven days, compared to just 500 new daily cases in the previous week, and 275 new daily cases the week before that. The proportion of Covid-19 tests that are positive has risen from around 2% to 9% in less than a week. This is an extremely sharp rise in infections in a short space of time. 

“If cases continue to climb, we can expect to enter a fourth wave of infections within the next few weeks, if not sooner. This should not come as a surprise. Epidemiologists and disease modellers have told us that we should expect a fourth wave in early December. Scientists have also told us to expect the emergence of new variants,” Ramaphosa said. 

He added that there were several concerns about the Omicron variant, and still some uncertainty about how it will behave going forward. 

He said that following a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council a decision was taken to keep the country at Alert Level 1 with the National State of Disaster remaining in place.  

“In taking the decision not to impose further restrictions at this stage, we considered the fact that when we encountered previous waves of infection, vaccines were not widely available and far fewer people were vaccinated.

“That is no longer the case. Vaccines are available to anyone aged 12 and above, free of charge, at thousands of sites across the country. We know that they prevent severe disease and hospitalisation. We also know that the coronavirus will be with us for the long term. 

“We must therefore find ways of managing the pandemic while limiting disruptions to the economy and ensuring continuity. However, this approach will not be sustainable if we do not increase the vaccination rate, if we do not wear masks, or if we fail to adhere to basic health precautions,” he warned. 

Since first being described in Botswana and subsequently in South Africa, cases of the Omicron variant were also identified in Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the UK, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Israel over the weekend.  

“The early identification of this variant is a result of the excellent work done by our scientists in South Africa and is a direct result of the investment that our Science and Innovation and Health departments have made in our genomic surveillance capabilities. 

“We are one of the countries in the world that set up a surveillance network throughout the country to help us monitor the behaviour of Covid-19. The early detection of this variant and the work that has already gone into understanding its properties and possible effects means that we are better equipped to respond to the variant. 

“We pay tribute to all our scientists who are world-renowned and widely respected and have demonstrated that they have a deep knowledge of epidemiology,” Ramaphosa said.  

Over the next few days and weeks, Ramaphosa said, he expected there will be more information on how contagious the variant is, what the risk of reinfection is, whether the variant causes more severe disease, and, how effective the current vaccines are against it 

Ramaphosa said wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, washing hands and personal distancing were still necessary to protect against Omicron, but that the most “powerful tool” was still vaccination. 

In the most definitive indication yet by his government of a possible move towards mandatory vaccines for South Africa, Ramaphosa said there had been engagements with social partners and other stakeholders on introducing measures that make vaccination a condition for access to workplaces, public events, public transport and public establishments.  

“This includes discussions that have been taking place at Nedlac between government, labour, business and the community constituency, where there is broad agreement on the need for such measures. 

“Government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations.  

“We realise that the introduction of such measures is a difficult and complex issue, but if we do not address this seriously and as a matter of urgency, we will continue to be vulnerable to new variants and will continue to suffer new waves of infection. 

“Since the first Covid-19 vaccines became available late last year, we have seen how vaccines have dramatically reduced severe illness, hospitalisation and death in South Africa and across the world. Vaccines do work. Vaccines are saving lives.”  

We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the ban they have imposed before any further damage is done to our economies and to the livelihoods of our people. There is no scientific justification for keeping these restrictions in place.

He said that since the start of the vaccination programme in May 2021,  more than 25 million vaccine doses had been administered in South Africa, with 41% of the adult population having received at least one vaccine dose, and 35.6% of adult South Africans now fully vaccinated against Covid-19. In the most vulnerable age group, of people over 60, 57% have been fully vaccinated and 53% of people aged between 50 and 60 are fully vaccinated.  

“Vaccination is by far the most important way to protect yourself and those around you against the Omicron variant, to reduce the impact of the fourth wave and to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for. 

“Vaccination is also vital to the return of our economy to full operation, to the resumption of travel and to the recovery of vulnerable sectors like tourism and hospitality,” Ramaphosa said. 

South Africa was considering booster vaccines for people who are at greatest risk and for whom a booster may be beneficial. Healthcare workers are currently able to access a booster vaccine from Johnson & Johnson through the Sisonke trial. Pfizer has filed an application to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority for a third dose to be administered after the two-dose primary series. 

“The Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines has already indicated that it will recommend a staged introduction of boosters, commencing with the older population. Other people with immunodeficiency, such as those on cancer treatment, renal dialysis and on steroids treatment for autoimmune diseases, are allowed booster doses on recommendation of their doctors,” Ramaphosa said. 

He had some angry words for countries that have restricted South African travel since the Omicron variant was identified. 

“We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant. 

“This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of G20 countries in Rome last month. They pledged at that meeting to restart international travel in a safe and orderly manner, consistent with the work of relevant international organisations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization and the OECD. 

“The G20 Rome Declaration noted the plight of the tourism sector in developing countries, and made a commitment to support a ‘rapid, resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery of the tourism sector’.

“Countries that have imposed travel restrictions on our country and some of our southern African sister countries include the United Kingdom, United States, European Union members, Canada, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Seychelles, Brazil and Guatemala, among others. 

“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries. 

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.

“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the ban they have imposed before any further damage is done to our economies and to the livelihoods of our people. There is no scientific justification for keeping these restrictions in place,” he said. 

Ramaphosa said vaccine inequality was costing lives and livelihoods. 

“That is why we have joined many countries, organisations and people around the world who have been fighting for equal access to vaccines for everyone. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk.”  

Ramaphosa’s outrage was supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in a statement issued on Sunday evening. 

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognised by over 190 nations. 

“South Africa followed International Health Regulations and as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant informed WHO of this on 24 November. 

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. 

“WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of Covid-19,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

“On the eve of a special session on pandemic preparedness I urge all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions. It is critical that countries which are open with their data are supported as this is the only way to ensure we receive important data in a timely manner.  

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” Moeti said. 

On Saturday, the head of diplomacy in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Clayson Monyela, said they were engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans. DM/MC

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