Johannesburg. — Disbelief and confusion washed over South Africa as the announcement of the discovery of the Omicron Covid-19 variant grounded flights and raised fears of a hard lockdown in Africa’s most developed economy.
Flights from the country to the United States, United Kingdom, and nations in Europe were swiftly banned after South African scientists officially announced the discovery of the virus strain on Thursday last week.
“This is absolute chaos. Nobody can tell us what is possible in terms of travel at this point,” said Steve Lawrence, a stranded traveller at OR Tambo, one of Africa’s busiest airports.
“Things are changing by the minute and we are left in the lurch. We had planned to stay in the United States for the month of December — and now we are stuck.”
About 600 passengers on two KLM flights from Johannesburg to Amsterdam were left stranded on the runway at Schiphol Airport after panic set in following the announcement.
“Its naïve for developed countries to believe they can stop the spread of this variant with a blanket ban on countries in southern Africa,” said Shabir Madhi, a South African vaccinologist.
“The virus has already found its way into these societies from individuals that haven’t even travelled to or come into contact with anyone from southern Africa.
“The fact it was discovered here does not make it a South African variant — it was merely discovered here.
“In South Africa we have one of the globe’s best Covid sequencing capacities based on our experience with treating HIV and TB. We have been ahead of the game for a while now and we are thus a victim of our success.”
The abrupt grounding of flights has spooked the tourism industry with booking cancellations increasing directly following the announcement.
“I’m absolutely shellshocked. When we woke up on Friday morning everything was fine — now within 48 hours we have been banned and we are experiencing multiple cancellations,” Manuela Pallamer, owner at Mziki Safari lodge in the North West province, told Al Jazeera.
The South African tourism sector lost out on US$10 billion in bookings in 2020 because of a drop in foreign visitors, and is estimated to lose about US$10 million every week flights are suspended from key overseas tourist markets.
“We have a good local tourist market but if all of our foreign tourists cancel we’ll be truly devastated,” Pallamer added.
The South African tourism sector is one of the main employers in the country, providing 4.5 percent of the entire population with a job and adds up to 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) annually. — Al Jazeera.