Global land, sea and air transport lobbies have castigated world leaders for imposing travel bans in the wake of a new Covid-19 variant in what could boost Africa’s argument against restrictions.
The transporters, who include shipping operators, air freighters and cross border hauliers, say the “knee-jerk” reactions to the Omicron strain risk killing an already ailing global supply chain.
In a joint statement on Friday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents commercial airliners, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Road Transport Union (IRU), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said they reject fresh travel restrictions including those that limit the flow of people and good because they “will do nothing to prevent this while inflicting serious harm to still recovering global supply chains and local economies.”
Representing about $20 trillion (Sh2.25 quadrillion) of world trade share, these groups caution travel bans are putting the jobs of workers in the logistics sector at risk, while also damaging local economies.
Since South Africa first announced a new variant of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, at least five dozen countries across the world have imposed travel restrictions, including the controversial blanket ban on all of South Africa’s neighbours by the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
“Now is the time for heads of State to listen to industry leaders and workers, by taking decisive and coordinated action together to ease the strain on the supply chain, and support an exhausted global transport workforce during the busy holiday season,” they said.
“Public health officials tell us that we should expect variants to emerge. And by the time they are detected, experience shows that they are already present around the globe,” added Willie Walsh, Director General, IATA, the association of commercial airlines including Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.
Although flight bans have affected air passenger traffic, the lobbies also say it could slow down deliveries by road or sea as countries close borders on foreign arrivals. Umberto de Pretto, Secretary-General of IRU said the sudden halting of commercial travel was hurting workers who were “simply doing their job to keep global supply chains functioning.”
“They, and all of us who rely on their service, deserve much better.”
Last week, the World Health Organisation said Omicron was a variant of concern, but asked countries to do more surveillance and study its infection patterns rather than lock borders. Scientists in places like Germany and the Netherlands have since discovered the same variant in people who had had no travel history or contacts with those who had come from southern Africa.
South Africa and Botswana have protested what they called “punishment” for revealing the variant. Botswana President Mokgweesti Masisi revealed on Wednesday that the four samples with the variant in his country were found among foreign diplomats who had arrived in the country.
“The response by some countries to our detection of the Omicron variant is unfortunate as it appears to have caused unnecessary panic amongst the public across the world.
“The decision to ban our citizens from travelling to certain countries was hastily made and is not only unfair but is also unjustified,” said President Masisi.
At an event in New York, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat told an audience that the travel bans were not based on logic or scientific data.
“We have told UN agencies that there is no scientific basis for these travel bans, it has been found that this variant was circulating in Europe before it was identified in South Africa,” Dr Faki at a forum to commemorate slavery.
“We condemn and challenge the travel measures that have no basis in science nor common sense. To condemn a country because its scientists alerted the world of the prevalence of a new variant is immoral. In the face of a common enemy, the life of a human being should be the same.”
The transport lobbies want a guarantee of free movement, priority to vaccinations and adherence to only public health protocols that have worked.