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Now is not the time for knee-jerk Western responses to Omicron – it is the time for all hands on deck

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Irene Charnley is President of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa. The forum is an organisation of 7,500 women from 36 nations on six continents.

Rather than knee-jerk travel bans, wealthier Western countries should focus on efficiently getting vaccines into less-wealthy countries well before expiry and actively encourage the Covid protocols in their own regions, especially wearing masks in public spaces.

Our scientists and transparent leadership in managing Covid-19 should be celebrated and not punished as we learn to live responsibly with Covid-19. It is not a time for knee-jerk decisions and panic. President Cyril Ramaphosa and leaders in government are entirely correct in keeping South Africa at Alert Level 1 while prioritising vaccination for all who access public spaces in the continued fight against the virus.

A fourth wave has been expected for some time, and managing Covid protocols and increasing vaccination of citizens rather than restrictive lockdown levels that worsen the economic plight of ordinary South Africans, is what we need at a time when many sectors are beginning to return to a new form of normal operations.

Recent reports of the new Omicron variant caught the world by surprise and elicited what many have characterised as knee-jerk reactions, whereby the UK, the European Union, the US and other developed countries slapped travel bans on most southern African countries, including South Africa. This was a rude shock for our travel and tourism industry which was banking on the festive season for recovery as many companies were just inching above half-occupancy levels. The ripple effects will be felt throughout the whole economy, including government finances.

We support the President’s stance in challenging his fellow global leaders on their unjustified isolation of southern Africa and in some cases alarmist messaging when they should be celebrating our excellent scientists for identifying this variant early and being transparent about it with the rest of the world.

Identifying the new variant does not mean it originates from South Africa and punishing us for transparency may disincentivise other countries from being more transparent. This is especially upsetting after world leaders committed to reopening international travel at the G20 meeting in Rome in October 2021, to kick-start recovery of the tourism sector worldwide. These travel bans are not backed by science. Rather than knee-jerk travel bans, wealthier Western countries should focus on efficiently getting vaccines into less-wealthy countries well before expiry and actively encourage the Covid protocols in their own regions, especially wearing masks in public spaces.

As the International Women’s Forum of South Africa (IWFSA), we are also deeply concerned by how the announcement of this new variant was handled by Western leaders. Women bear the brunt of poverty more than most and therefore any further disruption of economic activity on the scale that we saw in 2020 will throw millions more into poverty, including children. The impact on the tourism sector has a direct consequence for many jobs largely filled by women.

The global pandemic’s ramifications for the majority of women, who carry the burden of care in all spheres of society, have certainly eroded the progress women have been making. A study, commissioned by UN Women and the UN Development Programme in 2020, estimated a 9.1% increase in the poverty rate for women because of Covid-19. We estimate this will increase with any destabilisation of our already fragile communities.

For us to fight and win against Covid-19 requires all hands on deck and cohesive leadership from the government and the private sector. South Africans need to continue playing their part, too, in observing all Covid-19 protocols such as wearing masks, washing hands and getting vaccinated. This is mandatory if we are to win this fight.

IWFSA is committed to continuing to work with the government on the recovery of the economy, and prioritising women as important stakeholders and agents of change. DM

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