Rwanda has barred direct flights to and from nine countries in southern Africa, joining a growing list of nations that have imposed travel restrictions over a new, heavily mutated Covid-19 variant.
The new variant, dubbed Omicron, was first reported in South Africa last week, with cases subsequently detected in several countries, and many governments have moved swiftly to reimpose containment measures.
Direct flights between Rwanda and southern Africa will be temporarily suspended “effective immediately,” Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente announced late Sunday.
“While the variant has not been detected in Rwanda, its effects are potentially dangerous,” Ngirente said in a statement, urging extra vigilance.
The countries affected by the ban are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
All passengers who have arrived from those countries in the past seven days have to spend a week in quarantine, at their own costs, in designated hotels in Rwanda, according to the announcement.
Rwanda, a country of 13 million people, will also reimpose a mandatory 24-hour quarantine for all passengers.
The East African country has enforced some of the strictest containment measures on the continent and implemented a rigorous regime of testing and contact-tracing.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Monday that the new variant poses a “very high” risk globally.
Even if the new strain proves to be less deadly than previous ones, it could put more pressure on hospitals if it spreads more easily, it said.
“If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” WHO said in a technical note, adding that “to date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday protested the “unjustified” travel bans and called for their immediate reversal.
“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,” Ramaphosa said.
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera on his part accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.
The head of the WHO in Africa also cautioned against border closures.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.
Dozens of nations including Africa’s Angola and Mauritius have imposed travel restrictions since South African scientists flagged Omicron on Thursday.