South Africa’s health minister said there was “absolutely no need to panic” about the new alternative to the Omicron coronavirus, despite the high number of cases.
“We’ve been here before,” added Joe Pahla, referring to a beta variant that was discovered in South Africa last December.
South Africa has also denounced the travel ban imposed on the country, saying it should be lifted immediately.
Omicron has been rated as a ‘alternative of concern’. Early evidence suggests that it has a high risk of re-infection.
The highly mutant type was discovered in South Africa earlier this month and then reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) last Wednesday.
The variant is responsible for most of the infections found in South Africa’s most populous Gauteng province over the past two weeks.
According to the World Health Organization, the number of cases “appears to be increasing in almost all provinces” in the country.
South Africa recorded 2,800 new infections on Sunday, up from the daily average of 500 in the previous week.
Government advisor and epidemiologist Salem Abdel Karim said he expects the number of cases to reach more than 10,000 per day by the end of the week, and hospitals to come under pressure within two to three weeks.
Dr. Bhalla said he wanted to “re-emphasize that there is absolutely no need to panic” because this is “not a new area for us”.
“We are now over 20 months of experience with Covid-19, and its various variables and waves,” he added at a media briefing.
On Monday, Japan became the latest country to reintroduce strict border restrictions, banning all foreigners from entering from November 30.
The United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States are among those who earlier imposed travel bans on South Africa and other regional countries.
The World Health Organization has warned against countries imposing travel restrictions hastily, saying they should look to a “scientific, risk-based approach”.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, travel bans targeting Africa are attacking global solidarity,” Matshidiso Moeti, Director of the World Organization for Africa, said on Sunday.
However, Rwanda and Angola are among the African countries that have announced restrictions on flights to and from South Africa.
South African foreign ministry spokesman Claison Monyela called their decision “extremely unfortunate, very unfortunate, I would say sad”.
In a speech on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said a ban would not be effective in preventing the spread of the species.
“The only thing a travel ban will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic,” he said.
Current regulations in South Africa make the wearing of face coverings mandatory in public places, limiting indoor gatherings to 750 people and outdoor gatherings to 2,000 people.
Mr Ramaphosa said South Africa would not impose new restrictions, but would “consult broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and sites”.
There is no shortage of vaccines in South Africa itself, and Ramaphosa urged more people to get vaccinated, saying this remains the best way to combat the virus.
Health experts said Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, has entered the fourth wave, and most hospital admissions have been of unvaccinated people.
Omicron has now been discovered in a number of countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Israel.
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