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Family stranded in S.Africa as travel ban over mutant virus strain kicks in

Passengers wearing protective masks walk to the check-in counters at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, December 22, 2020. Picture taken with a slow shutter speed. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko reuters_tickers
This content was published on December 22, 2020 - 10:10

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - When businesswoman Marina Wessolowski arrived in Cape Town on Dec. 12 she was looking forward to spending Christmas with family and friends before flying back to Germany early next month.

But the emergence of a new, fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus in South Africa means that she, her husband and two daughters are now uncertain when they will be able to return home.

That's because a growing number of countries, including Germany, have barred travellers from South Africa while they assess how much danger the new variant poses.

"We found out this morning that we won't be able to go home, so that is quite a shock to us," Wessolowski, who runs a cosmetics distribution firm in Berlin, told Reuters on Monday outside her rental flat overlooking the city.

There had been no notification yet from airline Lufthansa on their Jan. 12 return flight to Frankfurt. "We haven't heard from anybody specifically on what is the next step, so we are waiting," she said.

At OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday, there were fewer passengers than normal, most flying domestic routes.

South Africa's health department said last week the new virus mutation might be behind a recent surge in infections. The variant is different from one identified in Britain, though both carry mutations that make them more transmissible than previously circulating dominant strains.

Having not seen her 76-year-old mother for a year, Wessolowski - a South African-born German - said their inability to interact more to due COVID-related restrictions has been the hardest part of her visit.

"She has been very lonely ... but we are all following the rules and keeping our distance with her. It's very difficult to see your mom after a year and you can't hug her," a tearful Wessolowski added.

South Africa's tourism department said it had no information on numbers of flights cancelled or rescheduled due to the bans, but that it was working with the foreign ministry and foreign embassies to facilitate contact between foreign citizens in South Africa and their governments.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf, additional reporting by Emma Rumney and Siphiwe Sibeko in Johannesburg and by Kate Kelland in London; editing by MacDonald Dzirutwe and John Stonestreet)

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