UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described widespread travel bans imposed on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant as “unacceptable,” likening the restrictions to apartheid.
“When we have now this virus everywhere, what is unacceptable is to have one part of the world that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy condemned to a lockout, when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way, already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe, as we know,” Guterres said during a news briefing in New York alongside African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat.
“We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let's use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable,” Guterres added.
South African scientists discovered the Omicron variant last week. It has since been identified in a growing number of countries including the United States, with scientists in the Netherlands confirming it was present in their country even before the South African announcement.
At the same Wednesday briefing, Faki Mahamat decried “stigmatization” of a vast swathe of the continent over the new variant.
“For having been transparent on the question of the new variant, Omicron, the entirety of the southern Africa region has faced punishment, notably the possibility of blocking flights between the region and several countries,” he said.
US health officials have argued that travel bans help to “buy time.”
Vaccine solidarity: Guterres also called for a global plan to help African countries produce Covid-19 vaccines.
With only 6% percent of Africa's population fully vaccinated, the people of the continent cannot be blamed for the “immorally low” level of vaccinations available to them, he said.
“As we have seen, low vaccination rates — combined with deeply unequal access to vaccines — are creating a breeding ground for variants,” Guterres said.