The Slatest

Omicron: South Africa Blasts Travel Bans as Hospitals See Surge of Younger COVID Patients

A health worker administers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to a health worker at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa on February 17, 2021.
A health worker administers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to a health worker at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa on February 17, 2021. EMMANUEL CROSET/Getty Images

South Africa is reacting angrily to the way many countries around the world, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions on travelers from southern Africa. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla characterized the travel bans as “unjustified” as well as “knee-jerk and draconian.” In a news conference, an angry Phaahla said it looked like his country was being punished for being transparent about its findings and alerting the world to what has since become known as the omicron variant. “COVID-19 is a global health emergency. We must work together, not punish each other,” Phaahla said.

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Phaahla added that it seemed countries were more eager to “put blame” rather than figure out the best way to deal with this new concerning variant. “Witch hunts don’t benefit anyone,” “Covid-19 is a global health emergency. We must work together, not punish each other,” Phaahla said. “South Africa wants to be an honest player in the world, to share health info not just of benefit to South Africans and citizens of the world.” The minister was sure to note that the travel bans violate standards set by the World Health Organization. “The same countries that are enacting this kind of knee-jerk, draconian reaction are battling their own waves,” he added.

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As many South African officials worried about the impact the travel bans on the holiday season after optimism there would be a much-needed tourism surge, health authorities are scrambling to figure out how to deal with a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases across the country. Omicron appers to have been key to South Africa going from a period of low transmission to a sharp increase in new cases, reports the Associated Press.

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Even though total cases across South Africa are still relatively low, health authorities are seeing a definite pattern in the people who are arriving in the hospital with serious illness: They’re younger and largely not fully vaccinated. “We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, said at an online press briefing. “Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65 percent are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated.” There is growing concern that the country’s health care facilities could quickly become overwhelmed as the large number oof mutations in omicron has led to fears that it could be much more easily transmissible. Although for now the variant has mostly been detected in South Africa’s Gauteng province, some officials suspect it’s likely much more widespread.

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