Rwanda has become the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to impose a ban on inbound and outbound flights to southern African countries in the wake of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron.
The new variant was first reported in South Africa last week, with cases subsequently detected in several countries, and many governments have moved swiftly to reimpose flight restrictions.
In a press statement, the country’s prime minister, Dr. Édouard Ngirente, said that after an extraordinary Cabinet meeting, it was resolved that “direct flights between Rwanda and southern Africa are temporarily suspended”.
The countries affected by the ban are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Monday that the new variant poses a “very high” risk globally.
Even if the new strain proves to be less deadly than previous ones, it could put more pressure on hospitals if it spreads more easily, it said.
“If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” WHO said in a technical note, adding that “to date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday protested the “unjustified” travel bans and called for their immediate reversal.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” Ramaphosa said.
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera on his part accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.
The head of the WHO in Africa also cautioned against border closures.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.