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Omicron: South Africa on an economic and health ridge line

ACape Town Airport, Saturday 27 November, 7 p.m. It’s the start of the tourist season, and yet the halls are empty, the seats just as empty. The souvenir shops with their stuffed penguins are sadly lonely. Several countries have just announced travel restrictions on South Africa, a leaden layer has just come down on the morale of South Africans. At a cafe counter, a waitress hands a brownie to a customer. “Things were finally starting to return to normal, tourists were coming back. But we take it again, once again … “

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South Africa “sanctioned”

The rapid reaction – or hasty? – internationally shocking in South Africa. Cartoons denounce a new “apartheid”, pointing to the fact that the restrictions encompass southern Africa, while only Botswana and South Africa have identified cases of the Omicron variant. Conversely, many “northern” countries are also affected by the variant, without however being subject to travel bans.

The lack of vaccines on the African continent is also at the heart of the complaints. It is denounced by scientists, like the epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, as a reason for the appearance of new variants. “It is unacceptable and immoral for rich countries to buy vaccines and hoard them while poor countries have to stand in the back of the line to get vaccines. For Mark Heywood, a human rights activist, “This should serve as a warning to developed countries which are grabbing vaccines and trying to build a wall between poor countries. There are going to be more variants and they are going to emerge, because billions of people are not vaccinated. “

READ ALSOCovid-19 anti-vaccine: South Africa in the grip of mistrust

Stop the summer season

If the announcement of the variant aroused as much interest in the country as elsewhere, it was not so much the health aspect as the economic aspect that immediately monopolized the debate. Cancellations started to rain as soon as the UK redlisted the country on Friday, according to David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Association. “There is no longer any hope for a good summer season in South Africa,” he said. Tourism professionals have half reproached scientists for having disclosed the existence of the variant before being able to learn more about its contagiousness and dangerousness, and called for restraint on the government regarding new measures.

A call heard: in contrast to international reactions, the South African president was much more measured in his speech on Sunday, November 28. The health alert, currently at level 1 with a curfew from midnight to 4 a.m. and the wearing of a compulsory mask, was finally not raised. It must be said that after failed municipal elections and twenty months of restrictions which have severely affected the economy, the ruling party is in the hot seat. The country has distinguished itself by its severe measures from the very beginning of the epidemic, but South Africans are no longer ready to accept it, as the situation worsens. On Tuesday, November 30, the unemployment figures fell, and they hit a record high, with 46.6% unemployed in the third quarter.

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Towards compulsory vaccination

Cyril Ramaphosa therefore preferred to focus on the possibility of compulsory vaccination. An announcement generally welcomed by the economic sector, although legal pitfalls still remain to be resolved. “Impose vaccines, not confinement”, headlined, Sunday, the Sunday Times. It remains to be seen whether the vaccines will be effective against the Omicron variant.

For now, the majority of patients are unvaccinated, but Moderna boss Stéphane Bancel has predicted a reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines. These doubts may not help vaccination in the country, where mistrust is real. South Africa, although the most vaccinated country on the continent, is still only 24% of the population having received the two doses, and this is not only due to the lack of vaccines: the government has struggled for weeks to reach its goal of 260,000 daily vaccinations and is offering vouchers to candidates. “A lot of people around me don’t see the point in getting vaccinated if the variant kills you even when you are vaccinated,” says Ayanda Malinga, who lives in a township near Johannesburg. We will have to wait several weeks before getting to the bottom of it.

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