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Southern Africa hit hardest by Omicron restrictions – Study

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

In three weeks – starting from the announcement by SA scientists of the discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on November 24 last year – 221 national travel policies were issued against South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia.

This is according to a study conducted by the University of Georgetown in the US, highlighting that the second tier of countries, including Zambia, Angola and Malawi, were added to these stringent travel bans during these three weeks.

Researchers further found that response measures to the Omicron variant were rarely tied to specific criteria or adapted to match the unique epidemiology of the new variant.

“SA was the first country to flag the highly transmissible variant at the end of November through its world-class genomics facilities. By the time the variant was discovered, it had been in circulation for about a month and scientists said it might not have originated in Africa,” said lead researcher, Jordan Schermerhorn.

Africa was the only region in which more than half of Omicron response policies focused on universal entry requirements, with a few specific entry bans.

The study found that policies in Europe were largely aligned with an “emergency brake” activated by the EU, which recommended temporary restrictions on all travel from SA and southern Africa.

Restrictions ranged from unsupervised quarantine at home to strict monitoring in designated hotels. Many quarantine policies required travellers to bear quarantine costs, occasionally requiring travellers to pre-purchase quarantine packages.

Schermerhorn said that the timing and conditionality of quarantine and testing requirements were not coordinated between countries or regions, creating logistical complications and burdening travellers with costs.“Overall, response measures were rarely tied to specific criteria or adapted to match the unique epidemiology of the new variant.”

The disconnect between restrictions and transmissions

Schermerhorn said the disconnect between travel restrictions and Omicron transmission patterns “provides a basis to inform evidence-based control measures for future virus mitigation efforts”.

The confusion and disarray surrounding travel restrictions not only affected public control measures but were a disservice to travellers, he said.

“Future mitigation efforts for new emerging variants or other viruses should aim to improve the alignment between response approaches and knowledge about the epidemiology of transmission,” commented Schermerhorn.

“As we build the evidence base for what measures are most effective at minimising the spread of infectious disease across international borders, we hope to see a more risk-based approach to political travel decisions.”

Info from Travel Updates


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