JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - The World Health Organization says renewed efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is needed as scientists scramble to determine the risks posed by the new omicron variant. Low vaccine rates combined with public fatigue over safety measures are putting more people in Africa at risk.
Experts say it's no surprise a new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered.
Fewer than 8 percent of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19, creating an environment for the illness to spread and mutate.
Dr. Mary Stephen is a technical officer for the World Health Organization's Africa office.
She said in the absence of vaccines, the public needs encouragement to uphold other measures to reduce the spread and save lives.
"We cannot be tired; we have to continue to make sure we are complying with wearing of our face masks, keeping our distance away, avoiding unnecessary mass gatherings, ensuring good hand hygiene, so that it's another layer of protection in addition to the vaccination," she said.
South African scientists detected the omicron variant last week.
Research is under way to determine how transmittable it is and its reaction to vaccines.
Amid uncertainty, Britain, the United States and European Union reacted by imposing travel bans to southern Africa.
Stephen, however, said the variant has already crossed continents and that halting flights to African countries that have long enforced testing for travelers is the wrong response.
"The world should react to them with solidarity. The solution is not about banning travel but our ability to identify these cases, identify the potential risks, mitigate the risks, while we are still facilitating international travel because we have seen the devastating effects that COVID had on the economy," she said.
International check-in counters stand empty as several airlines stopped flying out of South Africa, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 28, 2021.
Jeremiah Tshukudu is all too familiar with the economic toll of the pandemic.
The 45-year-old Uber driver said two of his cars were repossessed last year because he could no longer afford the payments during lockdown.
Tshukudu said he fears he's about to take another financial hit with the new variant.
"I see us like losing close to let's say 50% of what we've been earning recently. Relying on Uber, business was down, that means I wouldn't be able to provide for the family," he said.
Despite the pandemic's impact on him, Tshukudu said he's still hesitant about getting vaccinated.
With the threat of a new variant, experts are hoping people like him will reconsider.
Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
"Hopefully, you know, with some concern over coming fourth wave, hopefully, you know, those that were on the fence may actually go and vaccinate," she said.
A woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of coronavirus buys chicken on a crowded sidewalk in Pretoria, South Africa, Nov. 27, 2021.
More than 3,200 people in South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, a marked increase from the day before.
The government is campaigning for more people to get vaccinated and even offering grocery vouchers to those who get their shot.
Government data show that at least 41 percent of South African adults have now been vaccinated.