A White House correspondent accused press secretary Jen Psaki Thursday of lying about the justification for travel restrictions targeting eight countries in southern Africa due to the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Simon Ateba of Today News Africa began shouting over Psaki as she tried to call on Voice of America’s Patsy Widakuswara, at one point telling the press secretary: “You are saying something that is false.”
“I just answered — Simon, I answered a question on this,” Psaki said as Ateba attempted to get his question in.
“Let’s let Patsy ask a question,” added Psaki, who later scolded Ateba when he persisted.
“It’s not effective to scream over your colleagues in here,” the press secretary said. “Let’s — let’s — let Patsy ask the question.”
Ateba was not called on during the briefing and continued to make himself heard as Psaki exited the briefing room. He did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.
Earlier in the briefing, Psaki was asked why the travel restriction “still makes sense” now that Omicron has been reported in multiple states.
Psaki claimed the call was “not a decision made out of the White House,” but was “based on the recommendation, always of our public health and medical experts.”
“They have advised, several days ago, [for] the President to put in place restrictions on a set of countries where we are seeing the variant — specifically in South Africa — spread to hundreds if not thousands of cases and neighboring countries because of the concern about spread,” she added. “We will evaluate every day if those restrictions — any of these restrictions — should be expanded upon.”
Ateba’s objection came one day after he pressed Dr. Anthony Fauci about why the administration restricted travel to the US from eight countries — when only two of them have reported Omicron cases.
Just before Ateba asked his question of Fauci, Psaki appeared to try and call on another reporter.
“There are zero cases of COVID — of Omicron in Zimbabwe, in Namibia, in Lesotho, in Mozambique,” Ateba asked. “What justifies imposing a travel ban on countries that have zero cases of the Omicron variant?”
“You know that’s a very good question and important question, and we did struggle with that,” Fauci answered. “But we wanted to see if we could buy time temporarily, so I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country.”
Psaki has repeatedly defended the travel restrictions this week, even as one reporter pointed out the lack of restrictions on travel to European countries where the Omicron variant may have been present before South African scientists revealed its existence to the world.
“I guess I’m just trying to understand why if one person, let’s say in Germany or somewhere else, gets on a plane and comes to the United States, isn’t that person — just as likely to have the variant end up in the United States? Could you just talk a little bit more about the science behind the reasoning there?” PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor asked Monday.
“Well, I think the larger point, Yamiche, is that it is a much larger spread in South Africa than it is at this point in Europe and other countries,” Psaki explained. “We will continue to assess if there are additional restrictions that need to be put in place.”
African leaders and global health officials have slammed travel restrictions in response to Omicron, arguing that they would do more harm to people’s lives and livelihoods than provide protection from the variant.