Travel bans of African nations called unfair, ineffective by many health experts

Courtesy of Mayo Clinic, Dr. Cameron Webb and WHO (l-r): Dr. Priay Sampathkumar; Dr. Cameron Webb; and Dr. Matshidiso Moeti

African nations punished for warning the world of omicron virus

Some infectious disease experts critical of the United States’ travel bans on African countries say the measure intended to curb the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus is ineffective and reveals an anti-African bias. 

 “Scientists in Southern African nations revealed the presence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, but the good deed was punished with worldwide travel bans,” read a statement that appeared on the World Health Organizations (WHO) website November 28. “The World Health Organization (WHO) makes clear that the rationale for the ban is of dubious benefit and needlessly harms the targeted nations. 

“The role of rich nations in hoarding vaccines and the continued patents on vaccines increase harm for Africans who are now the target of blame,” the WHO statement continued. “Pledges to ‘follow the science’ disappeared when Africa became the focus of attention.” 

“While we were busy banning travel from South Africa, the variant is already here, because we are seeing community transmission in the U.S.,” said Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, an infectious disease specialist with the Mayo Clinic. 

South African scientists first detected omicron late last month and reported the variant to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. By Nov. 26, the WHO publicly identified omicron as a “variant of concern,” saying it appeared to display a “big jump in evolution” compared to previous versions of the virus. 

Dutch health authorities announced last week that they found the new omicron variant of the coronavirus in cases dating back earlier last month, indicating that it was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment also acknowledged this on Nov. 30.

The world acted swiftly to implement measures intended to limit omicron’s spread. The United Kingdom and the United States banned foreigners from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho and Eswatini.

After two people in the UK tested positive for the variant, Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, a Zimbabwean immigrant and health director for the city of St. Louis, tweeted, “But let’s only ban South Africa and 7 other African countries. And there are other countries, without a clear link to South Africa. Not only are travel bans ineffective and performative, but this specifically perpetuates stigma and xenophobia.”

Effectiveness of bans questioned

Other countries, including Australia and Canada, have enacted similar restrictions. But some experts question the effectiveness of the bans. At least 15 U.S. states and 38 countries reported confirmed cases of the omicron variant by Dec. 5. 

By the time cases become widely reported, “the virus is much more widespread than we think,” Sampathkumar said. “And so, banning one particular country doesn’t really help with public health measures.”

The infectious disease expert said, “The bans have never been applied in a fair manner.” She also noted that the U.S., which saw a rise in COVID-19 cases before omicron emerged, could have had a harder time identifying a new variant than South Africa because of the onslaught of cases facing scientists and health care workers.

“[South Africans] were in a much better situation than the U.S. They were in between waves so-to-speak,” Sampathkumar said. “They certainly saw case numbers rising and then sequenced the virus and were able to show that it was a new variant. That is why South Africa picked it up first.”

“Other countries may be less forthcoming about reporting new cases of the variant, now that they’ve seen how quickly restrictive bans followed South Africa’s finding,” lamented the doctor. “They know what will follow. So there’s going to be pressure on the scientific community to keep these results hidden if there are future variants. I think this actually sets back public health.” 

Researchers with the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences found that travel bans “upend economies, communities and health care systems,” although there is little evidence to support their effectiveness. 

Travel bans are “little more than “public health theater,” said Northeastern University Professor Wendy Parmett.”It’s inappropriately stigmatizing,” said Parmet, who researches health policy and law. “Everybody can still travel to Scotland, but you can’t travel to South Africa? You’re sending the wrong signal.”

However, Dr. Cameron Webb, a senior policy advisor for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said, “The travel restrictions on African nations aren’t intended to be discriminatory and are instead based on the number of cases in the banned countries. We know that travel bans are certainly not going to stop the spread of this variant. 

“[President Joe Biden’s] intention all along was to delay the inevitable as much as we could,” said Webb. He defended the decision-making process that brought about the ban while acknowledging that its “effect” could inflict disproportionate harm on the targeted countries.

In the U.S., officials with the Centers for Disease Control say the number of omicron cases is likely to rise. A Minnesota man was among the first reported cases of the omicron variant in the country. 

The man recently attended an anime convention in New York City and later tested positive for the variant. He was fully vaccinated and had gotten a booster shot weeks before the convention that drew tens of thousands of people. About 15 people who attended the convention with the man have also tested positive for the variant. 

The omicron variant is spreading twice as fast as delta in South Africa, scientists found in a study published on Dec. 2. 

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended,” wrote Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, on its website last week. “WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”