WASHINGTON — People living in the region with friends and family in South Africa expressed dismay on Saturday after travel restrictions to the country were announced amid ongoing concerns with a new COVID-19 variant.
The variant, which is being called "omicron," could potentially be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
South Africa has seen a surge of cases tied to the variant and will see new US travel restrictions, along with seven other southern African countries, beginning on Monday. Several European countries have also announced restrictions.
Yolandie Els, who grew up in South Africa and now lives in Maryland, spoke to WUSA 9 on Saturday and said the new changes would disrupt holiday and travel plans for many South Africans in the area.
"This time of year, it’s devastating. People haven’t seen their families since before covid," she said. "We have parents and kids on the other side. We have grandparents that we’re looking forward to spending Christmas with their grandkids.”
Els helps run the "South Africans in Maryland" group on Facebook and has been seeing some of the conversations since news of the variant began to spread.
She said people here were upset at the uncertainty of when they might be able to see loved ones again.
"South Africans here kind of find each other," Els said. "We’re heartbroken for some families that were really looking forward to planning and spending a lot of money on flights, accommodations.”
Also on Facebook, June Cartoon has helped organize the "South Africans Flying During Covid" page.
Cartoon lives in Virginia after moving from South Africa back in 1979.
While her page has helped offer important help during the pandemic, she said nothing has compared to the last two days.
"The last 48 hours is incomparable in terms of the stress and outpouring of dismay and unhappiness," Cartoon said. "It’s really unfortunate what’s going on there. It’s absolute chaos.”
Cartoon has been in contact with multiple airlines and the South African embassy so she can provide updates on travel restrictions to people from the country.
So far, her Facebook page has grown to over 10,000 members.
As the situation in the country continues to evolve, Cartoon told WUSA 9 that it would be important for folks with ties to South Africa to monitor changes and to stay in contact with their loved ones back home.
"With the holidays approaching, a lot of people are extremely frustrated. Many who have had plans set now have to dismantle them," she said. "My advice to people is to plan for the two weeks in another country before they enter here.”
Moving forward, both Cartoon and Els hoped the response to variant would be sorted out and travel to and from South Africa could be restored soon.
"We don’t want to get anybody excited about us coming and then it’s not happening and we don’t want to lose the money on a plane ticket and things getting canceled," Els said when discussing plans for her next trip home. "[South Africans] are just hoping that this will blow over real fast and they will be allowed to open back up the borders.”