African leaders are pushing back on travel bans imposed by wealthy or Western nations in an effort to stop the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant — and expressing their anger that the result of South Africa's openness in sharing news of the variant has led to what they see as punitive measures.
The variant was detected last week in Botswana and South Africa, and since then it's been found in countries across the globe from Scotland to Canada. It's still unclear where the latest known strain originated.
Yet the travel restrictions specifically target nations in southern Africa. This prompted blowback this week from African leaders and public health officials, who say the bans will do more harm than good and discriminate against countries in the region.
"The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant," South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech on Sunday.
"The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic," he added.
Lazarus Chakwera, the president of Malawi and chairman of the Southern African Development Community member states, echoed that sentiment in a Facebook post on Sunday, saying travel bans on southern African nations were "uncalled for." "COVID measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia," he said.
U.S., U.K. among those restricting travel from Africa
Several countries have taken steps to limit the flow of travelers from southern Africa.
In the U.S., the Biden administration began restricting travel from eight southern African nations on Monday, including Botswana and South Africa. Non-U.S. citizens are prohibited from entering the U.S. if they have been in any of those countries in the previous two weeks.
In the U.K., 10 countries in southern Africa were added to its "red list," a list of places the government defines as high risk for new and emerging strains of coronavirus. While the U.K. isn't blocking these travelers from entering, it is requiring them to take several coronavirus tests and quarantine for at least 10 days.
And in recent days, Canadian authorities blocked foreign nationals who had recently been in seven southern African countries from crossing its border.
The European Union urged member states to limit travel from southern Africa, and Japan, Australia and Israel are banning all foreign travelers in response to the variant.
The World Health Organization noted in a statement on Sunday that only two of the southern African countries on these lists — Botswana and South Africa — have reported cases of the omicron variant. Yet other countries where the variant has been detected, such as the U.K., Canada and Germany, did not appear to be facing targeted travel bans. (The U.S., so far, has not reported any cases of the variant.)
WHO officials called on countries to show unity in this time of crisis and warned the bans could be divisive. "With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. "COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions."
Like the South African and Malawian presidents, WHO called on countries that imposed the bans to take a "a risk-based and scientific approach" when putting measures in place to limit the spread of COVID. That includes using "the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from delta," said WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks at the WHO General Assembly on Tuesday: "enhancing surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting."
"If we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from omicron," he said.
In announcing the travel restrictions, President Biden said it was his administration's policy to implement "science-based public health measures" to reduce the spread of COVID.
The impact of travel bans on Africa
Moeti also suggested that health authorities in South Africa and Botswana be praised for alerting the world to the existence of this new variant — not punished with travel bans.
The bans may deter countries, especially those in lower-resource parts of the world, from reporting new strains of the coronavirus in the future, says Mia Malan, editor-in-chief of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, a media outlet based in Johannesburg.
Bans can prompt a "fear of discrimination, stigma and the fear that the economies would be hugely impacted by things like travel bans," she said.
Africa faced "severe" economic consequences as a result of restrictions on mobility and travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Bank. Incomes plummeted and jobs dried up in response to economic instability that experts say could last for years.
Studies have also shown that restricting travel alone may do little to prevent the spread of a new COVID-19 strain without other public health measures, such as early detection and isolating patients.
Travel bans renew the conversation over vaccine inequity
The omicron variant has highlighted the fact that vaccination remains a major hurdle to containing the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa.
African countries have far lower vaccination rates than the rest of the world, in part because they cannot get enough doses. Rich countries have stockpiled many more vaccine doses than developing nations. And unless vaccines are distributed more equitably across the world, public health experts say the virus will continue to mutate and create new variants.
That's why, Malan argues, Western countries are partly to blame for the new variant.
"Africa doesn't have enough vaccines because Western countries bought it all up and even hoarded those vaccines. So they are part of the reason why this new variant emerged, because there's a continent that didn't have enough access to vaccines."
"Now they want to punish the very people who are the victims of their actions. That's simply not the right thing to do," Malan added.
Ramaphosa, the South African president, called on Western nations to immediately scrap their travel restrictions and suggested they help countries like his vaccinate more people.
"Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing countries — economies, that is — to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay," he said.