Nations in southern Africa protested bitterly on Saturday as more of the world’s wealthiest countries cut them off from travel, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and compounding the problems facing poorly vaccinated countries.
A new coronavirus variant called Omicron, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases this week, plunging countries into the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant took hold this spring.
As in the early days of Delta, political alarm spread quickly across the world, with officials trading blame over how the failures of the global vaccination effort were allowing the virus to mutate, even as researchers warned that the true threat of the new variant was not yet clear.
Bearing a worrying number of mutations that researchers fear could make it spread easily, Omicron was spotted in two patients in Britain on Saturday and another probable case in Germany, leaving in its wake what scientists estimated to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and tens or hundreds more globally. One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa even as they spurned public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on the new variant.
Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were among the latest countries on Saturday to join the United States, Britain and the European Union in banning travelers from South Africa and nearby countries. Health officials in the Netherlands announced that 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for the virus, the latest indication of how difficult it might be to stop the variant from crossing borders.
In poorer African nations, the cascade of travel closures triggered a wave of resentment among people who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
Richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalizing parts of the world that they had starved of shots in the first place, scientists said.
“Told you so,” said Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants. “It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support.”
The sense of outrage was most visceral in South Africa, where business leaders predicted a dire economic toll, especially on tourism. In the arrivals halls of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International airport, Ronald Masiwa, a tour operator, watched with dread as the information board flipped to red, displaying cancellation notices. Three clients had already canceled trips overnight, and he feared that many more would follow.
Some health officials said that the travel bans may buy some time to figure out how to deal with the new variant. But just as border closures a year ago did little to stop the spread of an earlier coronavirus variant…