The World Health Organization on Sunday criticised countries for introducing travel restrictions on account of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and called for borders to remain open.

The organisation made the statement two days after it classified the variant, known officially as the B.1.1.529 strain, as a “variant of concern”. It, however, said it was not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in South Africa, is more transmissible than other variants or if it causes more severe disease compared to other strains.

The global health body’s Regional Office for Africa said that while travel curbs may contribute to slightly reducing the spread of the coronavirus, they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.

“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations,” the organisation said.

The World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti praised the governments of South Africa and Botswana for their “speed and transparency” in informing the world about the Omicron variant.

“WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19,” Moeti said.

The official urged governments to support countries that are open with their data, saying that this is the only way in which the world can receive important data in a timely manner.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” Moeti said. “Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

Travel bans

On November 26 as well, the World Health Organization had urged countries not to hastily impose travel curbs in view of the Omicron variant. The organisation recommended that countries continue to apply a “risk-based and scientific approach” when implementing travel measures.

Mike Ryan, the executive director of the global health body’s health emergencies programme noted that good information would be needed to beat Covid-19. “Good information will only come when people feel that they may share that information without being punished for having done so.”

However, several countries have imposed restrictions on travel due to the variant.

Members of the European Union’s crisis response panel have agreed on the need to impose temporary restrictions on all travel to the region from southern Africa.

The United Kingdom has already announced a ban on six south African countries beginning from Friday. The countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Germany, France Italy, Singapore and Israel too have announced a ban on travel from the region.

United States President Joe Biden said on Friday that the country will ban most travellers from eight countries in southern Africa starting from Monday.