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South African journalist shares impact of omicron variant

South African freelancer Matuba Mahlatjie says vaccine hesitancy is lifting as omicron spreads and a vaccine mandate looms.

PRETORIA, South Africa — The U.S. has already banned non-Americans from flying in from Southern Africa, which is now an omicron hot zone. 

While primary health care deputy director Zethu Xapile reports there isn't one confirmed case of the new COVID variant in the rural township of Cape Town, where she lives and works with Minnesota-based Arm in Arm in Africa, freelance journalist Matuba Mahlatjie feels the broad impact in capital city Pretoria.

"All of our tourism hot spots, people were canceling as fast as possible and you know what that means," Mahlatjie said. "That means unemployment for a lot of people."

With a population of 60 million people, South Africa has recorded nearly 3-million COVID cases, including nearly 90,000 deaths. Nationally there's been a dramatic surge of new cases since South African scientists first detected omicron last week. Much like the U.S., Mahlatjie says South Africans have been divided over vaccines.

"People feel a bit anxious because they feel they will soon be forced to vaccinate because of this omicron," he said.

But he says political leaders are now working together and are already marking change. That could be a lesson for the U.S., which confirmed its fourth case of the variant Thursday and is bracing for more.

"172,000 people have vaccinated since the news of the variant broke in South Africa," Mahlatjie said. "Those divisions and political lines are disappearing in South Africa and people are pulling in the same direction and that's what's been helping us win the battle against hesitancy."