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Airlines cull South Africa routes as virus flares

Several international airlines have streamlined flights to South Africa this week following travel restrictions meant to limit the spread of a new coronavirus variant fuelling a rapid infection resurge.

A growing list of countries are limiting travel to and from South Africa since a more transmissible variant of the virus, dubbed 501Y.V2, was announced in December.

The new border closures have forced major airlines to either suspend or reduce flights in and out of Africa’s most industrialised economy.

Emirates this week announced a 13-day halt on all South Africa routes for “operational reasons”.

KLM said it had to modify its schedules after the Dutch government restricted travel from South Africa to Amsterdam, forcing the company to cancel several flights this week.

Lufthansa also told AFP it was “adjusting its flight program” to South Africa to “reduced demand”.

The curtailing comes amid a worrying resurge in South Africa’s coronavirus infections — widely attributed to 501Y.V2 — that forced authorities to impose a new set of restrictions in December.

Concerns over spiralling infections prompted South Africa’s education ministry on Friday to delay the start of the school year by two weeks to February 15.

“This is done to provide relief to the health system which is already struggling to cope with the current demands,” Deputy Basic Education Minister Reginah Mhaule said in a statement.

South Africa has recorded close to 1.3 million cases and over 35,500 fatalities since March — the highest on the continent.

More than 240,000 infections and 6,000 deaths have been reported in January alone.

The uptick in cases, which started in southern South Africa, has rapidly hit the most populous Gauteng province, home to the financial hub Johannesburg and capital Pretoria.

Premier David Makhura this week warned that coronavirus-linked deaths had skyrocketed as a result.

“When we do a comparison per week, we see the number of people succumbing to Covid-19 is increasing quite significantly,” Makhura said during an update on the province’s health response.

Gauteng, one of the epicentres of South Africa’s outbreak during its first infection wave, accounts for over a quarter of the country’s cases and 18 percent of deaths.