South Africans 'devastated' by travel restrictions in response to omicron variant

George Qua-Enoo recently moved to South Africa for work. Now, with concern spreading about the omicron variant of coronavirus and countries, including Canada, shutting down international flights, he's wondering when he will next be able to visit his kids.

'This is global pandemic that needs a global solution,' says Dr. Zain Chagla

George Qua-Enoo recently moved to South Africa. Now he wonders when he'll next be able to visit his kids Genevieve (12) and Matthais (9) amid travel restrictions set up in response to the omicron variant of coronavirus. (Submitted by George Qua-Enoo)

George Qua-Enoo is wondering when he will next be able to visit his kids.

The photographer, who was based in Hamilton for years, moved to South Africa in 2019 and has been back and forth to visit his children every few months, most recently in October.

Now, with concern spreading about the omicron variant of coronavirus and countries, including Canada, shutting down international flights, he's worried about whether he'll be able to continue working and how long those restrictions could keep him from travelling back.

"Maybe by February, March I can come back to Canada to visit people, but who knows?" he said during a Zoom call from his new home in Pretoria on Sunday.

Qua-Enoo pointed out that the variant, which the World Health Organization has labelled as a variant of concern, may have been identified in South Africa but it's since been confirmed in countries around the world.

Still, "Africans are getting the heavy-handed part of it," he said.

"A lot of people are devastated about those restrictions. They're very disappointed. They're angry, I would say."

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, shared a similar sentiment during an interview with CBC's The Sunday Magazine.

South Africa discovered omicron, mapped out what was happening in a few days and alerted the world community, he told host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"And their reward is essentially being shut out of the world, having their travellers stuck in limbo, having supply chains cut off basically," said the doctor, adding the reaction could have consequences.

"It's going to discourage other places in the world to then say 'We're going to share our data.'"

Little is known about the omicron variant at this point.

It's going to take a week or two to complete lab studies that will indicate how protective the existing vaccines are against it and to start to understand how exactly this variant is different, said Chagla.

"There's been a lot of speculation at this point, but there's been no real data out there," he said.

"I would say though that some of the elements within these set of mutations have been associated with immune evasion in the past and certainly there's a potential for it."

It was first identified in South Africa and cases have since been detected in other countries including the Netherlands, the U.K., Germany and Australia.

Israel and Japan have closed their borders to all foreign visitors.

2 cases identified in Ottawa

On Friday, Canada barred all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the preceding 14 days from entering the country.

Then, on Sunday, Ontario's government announced two cases of the new variant had been found in Ottawa — the first cases to be confirmed in Canada.

Both of the cases were reported in people who had recently travelled to Nigeria, according to the province's Ministry of Health.

"The best defence against the Omicron variant is stopping it at our border," read the government media release sharing news the variant had been found in Ontario.

It went on to call for the federal government to mandate testing at all points of arrival "irrespective of where they're coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant."

Chagla said the omicron variant has been circulating for some time, leading him to believe it's likely on the ground in many places.

He questioned whether travel bans are the best way to combat it.

"Do we restrict travel to everywhere in the world?" he said.

"If our strategy right now is try to hide, try to boost, try to get rid of this from showing up on our soil and ignore what's happening in the rest of the world, we're going to be having this discussion … in three months," said Chagla.

"This is a global pandemic that needs a global solution."

Trying to remain hopeful

Qua-Enoo moved to South Africa in hopes of finding more work.

It means being away from his kids who live with their mother in Mississauga, which was difficult on its own, but now he wonders if the country will get locked down.

Already people there are upset their travel has been restricted and there are concerns restrictions on international flights will limit raw materials coming in and cause people to lose their jobs, he said.

"I hope the international community will not be too hard on Africans," Qua-Enoo said. "We just have to remain hopeful."

Chagla urged Canadians to be hopeful too, and said the international community must look for ways to take on variants and the COVID-19 pandemic together.

One way to do that is by balancing our vaccine needs with those of countries where the rate of people with shots is much lower.

"I hope and I pray going into the holidays people recognize this is a global threat," said the doctor.

"[And] we still advocate for our role as Canadians that we help the rest of the world, not just to help ourselves to an enhanced level of security."

with files from Christian Paas-Lang