Since the start of the pandemic, Greenmarket Square in the center of Cape Town has been a barometer of how serious the situation is in the tourism sector. Before COVID, it was full of tourists and souvenir stalls. Then, for a long time, there were just a few stalls dotted around. Recently, it's been full of stallholders again, selling drums, wooden carvings, brightly colored pictures.
But now, the mood among the traders, who come from all over Africa, is grim.
"The Germans were here last week," says a Congolese woman who sells bags, necklaces, and T-shirts. "Since yesterday they didn't come. They say they must go back home — if they didn't go back now, they are going to be locked here. The economy is down if the customers are not coming."
News of the new omicron variant has spread fast. But hardly anyone here is afraid of the COVID variant; what they fear are its consequences.
"I survive on this business," says a Malawian hat-seller. "What I'm worried about is my kids and my family. What are they going to eat? Because we depend on this business."
Many countries reacted very fast to the news that South African scientists had detected a new variant. Within a day, the EU, UK, United States, Israel, Singapore, Mauritius and other countries imposed travel restrictions on southern African countries, after fewer than 100 people had tested positive for the new variant.
The omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein — twice as many as the delta variant.
"At this stage, we don't really have evidence, neither from looking at patients nor from studies in the lab, as to what these mutations do," says Wolfgang Preiser, a virologist at Stellenbosch University.
However, he adds: "We can sort of predict, because some of them we know from other variants, and therefore there is the concern that this virus may evade the immune system. That means it can infect people who've been infected before and recovered, and it may also infect people who have been vaccinated successfully. And it also seems to be quite transmissible."