Nigeria yesterday expressed solidarity with South Africa as it struggled with some of the difficulties posed by a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, discovered in the country. The Nigerian government warned Western countries against discrimination against South Africa following travel restrictions imposed on Southern African countries in the aftermath of the new virus discovery.
The federal government said President Muhammadu Buhari would go ahead to receive South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who had been scheduled to visit Nigeria from today with other top officials of his administration, on a three-day visit.
Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, stated Nigeria’s position in a chat with THISDAY ahead of a media briefing scheduled for today in Abuja on the matter.
Ramaphosa called for reversal of the travels restriction.
In a similar vein, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, yesterday voiced displeasure at the stigmatisation and penalisation of Africa for new COVID-19 variants discovered on the continent. Adesina urged the acceleration of vaccine production in Africa.
Likewise, some members of the organised private sector (OPS) advised the federal and state governments in Nigeria to take proactive steps to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The OPS members said this during separate interviews with THISDAY.
That was as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele, said at the weekend in Lagos that the dire implications of the food export restrictions by some countries during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 should not be lost on Nigeria.
Ehanire insisted that the move by Western countries to ban or try to isolate South Africa was discriminatory. He this was because the variant detected in South Africa and also in Botswana and other countries had similarly been detected in Belgium, Italy, Germany and other countries.
“So, the federal government condemned the rush to ban or isolate South Africa by European countries, without isolating Belgium, Italy and other European countries that have more direct flights into the United States of America and among themselves,” he said.
The minister argued that the position of the Western countries on the virus was not backed by science, saying so far, even if it is a mutation, the new COVID-19 variant has not caused any new deaths or proved to be worse than the Delta variant.
Ehanire stated, “Therefore, the world should wait for that time, than to be enmeshed in heavy discrimination against South Africa. Why would they isolate South Africa? The federal government would open its doors to Ramaphosa and others who are coming from South Africa until science says otherwise. People should be vigilant.”
The AfDB president, who wrote on his Twitter handle, stressed that Africa was not the source of the COVID-19 virus, which had continued to put the world on edge.
The new COVID-19 variant was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hong Kong.
Owing to its discovery, Israel on Saturday announced that it was banning all foreigners from entering the country. The ban, pending government approval, was expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from countries on the red list, which included countries in Southern Africa, would be required to isolate for seven days in a designated hotel.
Australia also banned the entry of foreigners who had travelled to nine Southern African countries in the past 14 days, including South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
South Korea, too, imposed restrictions on travellers from eight southern African countries, its Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced Saturday.
Foreign nationals traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique were banned from entering South Korea, the agency said.
But Adesina warned, “Africa should not be labelled and penalised for COVID-19 variants and mutations that occur randomly elsewhere in the world. Africa is not the source of COVID-19.
“There must be global justice, equity and fairness in access to vaccine. Global vaccine supply system has underserved Africa. Protecting one’s home alone in the midst of a forest does not work.
Put out the forest fire.
“Africa must accelerate the manufacturing of its own vaccines and set up its own ‘healthcare security defence system’. Africa must no longer outsource health security of its 1.8 billion people to the benevolence of others.”
Emefiele reiterated the need for Nigerians to look inwards, considering the country’s huge population. He said the pandemic presented an opportunity to fix critical infrastructure in the country so as to reduce dependence on other countries for most of the continent’s needs.
The CBN governor stated, “As I’ve asked in some of my recent treatises on the opportunities of the pandemic, what if the pandemic occurs again and we witness an extended restriction in movements and export bans? What if these restrictions become a new normal? What if another pandemic occurs in which all borders are closed, with food and medical imports significantly curtailed? What if the rich among us, even when they can afford to pay for their medical bills abroad, cannot travel out of our shores because of these extended lockdowns?
“Are we going to allow our hospitals to remain in their current state without equipment and state of the art facilities? For how long shall we continue to rely on the world for anything and everything?”
He noted that in 2020, following the provision of vaccines, countries began to ease movement restrictions and demand in certain sectors began to recover to pre-COVID levels. Unfortunately, the surge in demand for the vaccines contributed to significant supply chain disruptions, which contributed to elevated inflation in advanced and developing markets, Emefiele added.
“For example,” he said, “the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) food price index, which measures monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, in October 2021, stood at its highest level since July 2011, because of the initially exogenous supply disruption I am about to describe.
“Finally, tragic as these outcomes were, even more alarming was the reaction of many countries at the height of the pandemic. All over the world, countries responded by fighting for themselves and taking measures to protect their own people, regardless of the spill-over effects on the rest of the world. According to the World Customs organisation, a total of 32 countries and territories adopted stringent and immediate export restrictions on critical medical supplies and drugs that were specifically meant to respond to COVID-19.”
The Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) urged the federal and state governments to be vigilant in testing people arriving Nigeria in order to track and contain the spread of Omicron in the country.
Director General of the NACCIMA, Mr. Ayo Olukanni, told THISDAY yesterday that government should not let their guards down but pay attention to the possibility of the spread of the new variant in the country.
Olukanni advised government at all levels to encourage Nigerians that had not taken the COVID-19 vaccines to do so.
He said, “We should not let our guards down on this issue. Implicitly, there will be more testing and, of course, those people who have not taken the COVID-19 vaccine should be encouraged to take it now. In fact, this is the time to make it compulsory for everyone to have the vaccine.
“We should also be more stringent with people who are coming in from Omicron’s high risk areas.”
He, however, said government should not contemplate locking down the economy because of the new variant.
Olukanni said, “No! I do not think that a lockdown will achieve any purpose. Our economy is just coming out of recession and we should not take actions that would push it back to another round of recession.”
Similarly, Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise (CPPE), Dr. Muda Yusuf, said the government should be vigilant and proactive in managing the spread of the new variant in the country. Yusuf, the immediate past Director General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also told THISDAY that the government should apply a risk-based approach by tracing arrivals into Nigeria from high-risk locations. He also advised against another lockdown of the economy.
Yusuf said, “What the government should do is to trace the locations that represent high risk of importing the new variant into Nigeria and restrict entries from those locations for now.
“Considering that Nigerians in those countries will be coming home and no one can say that they will not come home. But government has to isolate people from high-risk areas because I learnt that the new variant spreads very fast. So we need to be proactive.
“What I have in mind is that when people come in, they have to quarantine them for some time, especially those coming from high-risk areas. It has to be risk-based approach.
“But, I do not foresee another lockdown of the economy.”
Ramaphosa Urges Countries to Reverse Travel Ban
Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has called on countries to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the Omicron.
The South African president was quoted as saying in his first address to the nation following the detection of the new variant, “We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science.”
Ramaphosa said his country should expect a fourth wave of coronavirus infections in the wake of the discovery of the omicron variant.
But he said authorities would not be considering economic lockdown restrictions for the time being.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was not yet clear if Omicron caused more severe diseases.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.”
The head of WHO in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans in a bid to contain the new Omicron variant.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO’s regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.