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Omicron Variant Prompts More Countries to Restrict Travel from Southern Africa


As Saturday dawned around the world, more countries were introducing restrictions on travelers from southern Africa over concerns about the emerging Omicron coronavirus variant.

Australia announced on Saturday that it had closed its borders to noncitizens from nine southern African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique — and that flights from there would be immediately suspended for 14 days. Australian citizens who arrive from those countries will need to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, and anyone who has already arrived in the last two weeks must immediately isolate, officials said.

No cases of the Omicron variant have been recorded yet in Australia, although 20 people who recently arrived from South Africa are isolating in a quarantine camp, the country’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said at a news conference on Saturday. One person out of the 20 has tested positive for the virus and the case is being studied.

Thailand, Oman, Morocco and Sri Lanka announced similar restrictions on Saturday. Japan also said that it would tighten border controls for arrivals from three more countries — Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia — a day after announcing similar measures for South Africa and six other nations.

The World Trade Organization said it had indefinitely postponed its Ministerial Conference, which had been scheduled to start on Tuesday in Geneva, because newly imposed travel restrictions in Switzerland and other European countries would have prevented many ministers from attending. The conference is the W.T.O.’s highest rule-making body.

The government of Canada said late Friday that it would bar foreign nationals who had been in seven of the countries within two weeks of their planned arrival in Canada. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have been in the region within two weeks of coming home can still return but will face enhanced testing and quarantine protocols, regardless of their vaccination status.

The Omicron variant had not been detected in Canada as of Friday night. The government described its new restrictions as a precautionary step and cited similar actions in Britain, the European Union and the United States.

Saudi Arabia has also suspended flights to and from seven southern African countries, the country’s official news agency reported on Friday. And Ciro Nogueira, the chief of staff to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, said on Twitter that the country would halt its air traffic with six African countries on Monday.

Russia said in a statement published online on Friday that it would restrict entry starting Sunday for foreign citizens from eight southern African countries and in Hong Kong, which reported two cases of the variant on Friday. The restrictions also apply to foreign citizens who have traveled in those territories within the last 10 days.

“This variant has not yet been found on the territory of Russia,” the statement said. The restrictions will come into effect from midnight.

The W.H.O. has said that the Omicron variant carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.

The speed at which travel restrictions have been imposed on southern African nations in recent days demonstrates how, two years into the pandemic, many policymakers would now rather risk overreacting to a new threat than underreacting.

“These new measures are being put in place out of an abundance of caution,” Jean-Yves Duclos, Canada’s health minister, said in a statement. “We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the health of Canadians.”

Todd Gregory contributed reporting.



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