A senior Botswana health official said on Thursday that 16 of the total 19 cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant detected in the country were asymptomatic, while President Mokgweetsi Masisi said travel bans on its citizens were unfair and unjustified.
Pamela Smith-Lawrence, acting director of health in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, told Reuters in an interview that the majority of the 19 people who were found to be infected with the new Omicron variant have already tested negative.
While 16 people were asymptomatic, the remaining three had “very, very mild” symptoms.
Botswana last week said it was investigating certain mutations of the coronavirus that were found in four foreign nationals who were in the country on a diplomatic mission. It has since reported another 15 cases of the new variant.
While it is still not established where Omicron first emerged, on November 25 South Africa, followed by Botswana a day later, announced they had detected a new variant whose mutations were different from the dominant Delta variant.
This prompted immediate air travel curbs on southern African countries from several European and Asian countries, a decision which has been criticised by both South Africa and Botswana.
“The travel bans are unnecessary and irresponsible. They’re nothing but a manifestation of neo-imperialist thinking,” Botswana president Masisi told CNN on Thursday. “These travel bans are very paternalising and very divisive, they undermine our belief in multilateralism and question our confidence in claimed addiction to principles of human rights.”
Further describing the travel curbs as “ridiculous”, he added: “It’s just that we’re weaker, we’re poorer and we’re unable to respond in equal measure. I find it completely unacceptable, it’s inhumane, it’s demeaning and it’s degrading. You’ve got to find out who your true friends are.”
Masisi again refused to say the country where the four diplomats had come from, except to confirm that they were European. “Some had been to Europe, some had been elsewhere,” Masisi said. The quartet had come from, and through different countries, he added.
Botswana has been criticised for not disclosing the four diplomats’ nationality, which some say allowed world countries to associate the variant with southern Africa.
Said Zimbabwe’s former foreign minister Walter Mzembi: “I’m not sure what this belated disclosure (that they are European) cures now. Masisi missed the heat of the moment which could have turned the tables.
“Even now it’s not good enough to blanket Europeans. President Masisi must settle this, which specific country did they come from?”
The four foreign nationals, aged between 30 and 65, arrived in Botswana on November 7, tested positive on November 11 during departure tests and the new mutations were found on November 22, Smith-Lawrence said, adding the government uploaded the data on the international database the next day.
She said that 14 out of the 19 people so far detected with the variant were foreign nationals.
“Within the next two to three weeks, the government will be in a position to give more clarity on whether Omicron is more virulent than its predecessors or not,” Smith Lawrence said.
Masisi told CNN that Botswana has experienced a decrease in infections and deaths over the last three months.