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  01 Dec 2021, 09:01
Update : 01 Dec 2021, 10:14

WHO warns against Omicron travel bans as nations shut borders

  GENEVA, Dec 1, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - The World Health Organization has warned
blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, as more countries
rushed to impose curbs and the first cases of the new Covid strain were
detected in Latin America.

  In the week since the new virus strain was reported by South Africa, dozens
of countries around the world have responded with travel restrictions -- most
targeting southern African nations.

  But the World Health Organization warned Tuesday that "blanket" travel bans
risked doing more harm than good, just as Canada expanded its restrictions.

  In a travel advisory, the WHO warned the bans could ultimately dissuade
countries from sharing data about the evolving virus.

  But it did advise that unvaccinated people vulnerable to Covid-19,
including over-60s, should avoid travel to areas with community transmission
of the virus.

  WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was understandable for
countries to seek to protect their citizens "against a variant we don't yet
fully understand".

  But he called for the global response to be "calm, coordinated and
coherent", urging nations to "take rational, proportional risk-reduction
measures".

  The likely futility of broad travel restrictions was underscored as Dutch
authorities reported that Omicron was present in the country before South
Africa officially reported its first cases on November 25.

  The new variant -- whose high number of mutations the WHO believes may make
it more transmissible or resistant to vaccines -- was found in two Dutch test
samples from November 19 and 23, with one having no travel history.

  So far, well over a dozen countries and territories have detected cases,
including Australia, Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and Portugal.

  Latin America reported its first two cases Tuesday -- in people who
travelled from South Africa to Brazil -- and a first case was confirmed in
Japan, one day after it barred all foreign arrivals.

  However, US President Joe Biden said the travel bans on just the southern
African nations would stay in place, without referencing the other places
where Omicron has been detected.

  Asked how long travel restrictions that took effect Monday on South Africa
and seven other southern African countries would remain, Biden said it "kind
of depends".

  "We're going to learn a lot more in the next couple weeks about the
lethality of this virus, about how much it spreads, what we have to control
it, etcetera," he told reporters.

  Asked if any expansion of the travel restrictions to other countries could
be made suddenly, as happened under former president Donald Trump, Biden
said: "Unlike Trump I don't shock our allies."

  In Asia, governments continued Wednesday to expand restrictions, including
with Indonesia adding Hong Kong to its travel ban list alongside various
African nations.

  Hong Kong also added three more countries - Japan, Portugal and Sweden --
to its highest travel restriction category after Omicron cases were
discovered in those nations.

  - Vaccine-resistant? -

  While much is still unknown about the Omicron variant -- it could take
weeks to determine whether and to what extent it is vaccine-resistant -- it
has highlighted that the global fight against Covid-19 is far from over.

  Omicron has emerged as much of the northern hemisphere was already bracing
for a new winter wave of the pandemic -- leaving even nations with high
vaccination rates struggling to contain rising infection numbers and prevent
health services from being overwhelmed.

  Governments, particularly in Western Europe, have already reintroduced
mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns --
leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.

  Greece went ahead Tuesday in making vaccines compulsory for over-60s, while
Norway will offer booster shots to all adults before Easter, as preferable to
a lockdown.

  Britain has set a target of delivering third jabs to all adults within two
months.

  While the European summer of fleeting Covid freedoms may be over, in the
southern hemisphere, the Pacific island of Fiji ended 615 days of
international isolation on Wednesday and reopened to tourists.

  Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcomed waving holidaymakers from
Sydney, the first of an expected flood of desperately needed tourists in the
coming weeks.

  Fiji Airways chief executive Andre Viljoen said it was a "momentous"
occasion, where tourism accounts for about 40 percent of the economy.

  "The international border reopening will reignite Fiji's economy," he told
reporters.

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