Johannesburg: Disbelief and confusion prevailed in 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.
“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.”
Daily coronavirus infections have risen 13-fold since early November with 3,220 new cases reported on Saturday. Eight deaths brought the total to 89,791 in South Africa since the onset of the pandemic. 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.
The abrupt grounding of flights has spooked the tourism industry with booking cancellations increasing directly following the announcement. The South African tourism sector lost out on $10bn in bookings in 2020 because of a drop in foreign visitors, and is estimated to lose about $10m every week flights are suspended from key overseas tourist markets.
The South African tourism sector is one of the main employers in the country, providing 4.5 per cent of the entire population with a job and adds up to 3 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) annually.
Lobbying to lift the ban began furiously after the announcement of flight restrictions with the South African government and the private sector decrying being “punished for telling the truth”.
South Africa is now bracing for stricter Covid restrictions, while President Cyril Ramaphosa called on countries to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel restrictions linked to the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. Dozens of countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbours since South African scientists this week flagged the new variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated Omicron a “variant of concern” that is potentially more contagious than previous variants.