No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Travel Bans Hit South Africa Following Emergence of Omicron

The identification and spread of the newest SARS-CoV-2 variant, Omicron, by South African scientists has brought with it a host of medical, economic, and political concerns.

The Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization on November 24, 2021, by a team of scientists in South Africa.[1] The variant, which is characterized by at least 30 amino acid substitutions in the spike protein (compared to the Delta variant’s 15 or so) is potentially likely to evade current vaccines, some scientists say.[2] Current reports also indicate that although Omicron may cause only mild illness, it could be more transmissible due to mutual genetic material with the common cold SARS viruses.[1] Within weeks of being detected, Omicron had spread to over 35 countries and at least 17 American states.[3] The arrival of the variant has brought a new wave of political alarm and economic concern.

President Biden announced travel bans that went into effect November 29, 2021, closing the border to travelers from South Africa and seven other sub-Saharan countries.[4] Border restrictions have been used continually throughout the coronavirus pandemic – by early April of 2020, nearly all countries had introduced some sort of restraints on travel.[5] The current border restrictions imposed by the United States and other wealthy countries stand to have devastating economic effects on many nations in southern Africa. 

Although travel restrictions may delay the arrival of the disease, scientists question the actual efficacy of these bans. In a study led by the University of Washington’s Nicole Errett and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, very little evidence was found to indicate that travel bans eliminate the risk of a disease crossing the border in the long term.[6] A similar study from 2014 found that extensive travel restrictions cannot entirely prevent the spread of a virus.[7]

Several scientists and public health experts have therefore criticized the travel bans, arguing that they punish South Africa for doing precisely what the United States has expected of other countries – extensive and transparent tracking of and testing for the virus.[8] The implementation of such extreme restrictions, many of which will have overwhelming effects on the economies of several low and middle-income countries, has the potential to establish a dangerous hesitancy to identify and report new COVID-19 outbreaks. Such opacity could derail global efforts to manage the pandemic, prolonging the return to health and normalcy that has long been coveted.

Michael D. Shear and Sheryl Stolberg recently wrote an article  on the Biden administration’s institution of travel bans in response to Omicron. They say that in D.C., it is “better to be criticized for something you do, rather than for something you don’t do.”[8] But buying time is an expensive endeavor. South Africa’s economy relies heavily on tourism, much of which occurs during the holiday season. Reports indicate that the tourism industry employs over 1.5 million people in South Africa, accounting for more than nine percent of total employment.[9]

While border control measures serve as an expedient political maneuver used to promote a false impression of protection, there is evidence that intensive domestic public-health efforts such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination mandates stand to be far more effective at significantly stalling the spread of the virus.

At stake right now is the economic security, which often equates to political stability, of South Africa and many southern African countries. But the greater threat rests in the geopolitical instability these travel restrictions have the potential to ignite. Hesitancy to report new COVID-19 outbreaks because of the economic instability that may come if countries do poses a significant risk to global health and security.

While travel bans may have the potential to delay the dissemination of the virus (though not eliminating its presence altogether), they stand to have significant impacts on the economies of developing countries. In order to preserve the standard of international transparency and trust that will be critical to ending this pandemic, wealthy countries such as the United States must think twice before so quickly implementing such drastic restrictions on travel and instead consider more aggressive domestic approaches. 


References

[1] “Omicron: What We Know about the New Coronavirus Variant.” Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/article/omicron-coronavirus-variant.html.

[2] “Science Brief: Omicron (B.1.1.529) Variant.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/scientific-brief-omicron-variant.html.

[3] Spencekimball. “Who Says Covid Omicron Variant Detected in 38 Countries, Early Data Suggests It’s More Contagious than Delta.” CNBC. CNBC, December 4, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/03/who-says-omicron-covid-variant-has-spread-to-38-countries.html.

[4] “A Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease 2019.” The White House. The United States Government, November 27, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/11/26/a-proclamation-on-suspension-of-entry-as-immigrants-and-nonimmigrants-of-certain-additional-persons-who-pose-a-risk-of-transmitting-coronavirus-disease-2019/.

[5] “Covid-19 Restrictions ‘Unprecedented’ in History of International Travel.” ICEF Monitor – Market intelligence for international student recruitment, August 28, 2020. https://monitor.icef.com/2020/04/covid-19-restrictions-unprecedented-in-history-of-international-travel/.

[6] Nicole A. Errett, PhD, MS Lauren M. Sauer, and PhD Lainie Rutkow. “An Integrative Review of the Limited Evidence on International Travel Bans as an Emerging Infectious Disease Disaster Control Measure.” Journal of Emergency Management. Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.wmpllc.org/ojs/index.php/jem/article/view/2688/pdf.

[7] Mateus, Ana L P, Harmony E Otete, Charles R Beck, Gayle P Dolan, and Jonathan S Nguyen-Van-Tam. “Effectiveness of Travel Restrictions in the Rapid Containment of Human Influenza: A Systematic Review.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization. World Health Organization, December 1, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4264390/.

[8] “With Scant Information on Omicron, Biden Turned to Travel …” Accessed December 9, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/29/us/politics/biden-omicron-variant-travel-ban.html.

[9] Richardson, Heather. “Africa’s Fast-Growing Tourism Industry Could Lose up to $120 Billion and Millions of Jobs.” Quartz. Quartz. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://qz.com/africa/1888306/africa-tourism-market-to-lose-up-to-120-billion-with-covid/.