Prohibiting travel not 'effective in preventing the spread of this variant': Is South Africa president right?
- On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization announced a new COVID variant, Omicron (B.1.1.529), first reported from South Africa on November 24, 2021. Delta was the previous COVID variant.
- African leaders have expressed their frustration with travel restrictions as Omicron has also been found in Scotland and Canada. On November, 28, 2021, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech, “The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.”
- The White House released a statement on November 26, 2021, banning travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The UK also added six African countries to their travel “red list.”.
- A 2020 IATA Air Passenger Market Analysis report shows COVID-related restrictions reduced air transport revenue by 90% in April 2020, and still down 75% in August 2020.
- As of November 30, 2021, 196.8 million people have been vaccinated in the United States which is 59.3% of the population, while 70.1% have had at least one dose.
- Johns Hopkins research shows COVID spikes nationwide have been rising at a higher rate than before the vaccines were available despite more than half the country being fully vaccinated.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa believes recent travel bans against South Africa over the Omicron variant of COVID-19 unfairly target his country. He claims the bans are unscientific in their approach and ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus. Health experts agree with Ramaphosa. Studies show that travel bans do not stop the spread of COVID-19. While such restrictions provide the illusion of safety to citizens, they serve no scientific function.
After South African scientists identified the Omicron variant, the Netherlands recognized it unknowingly had prior cases. The admission validates the South African Minister of International Relations claim that the travel ban is 'punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.' Canada, Australia, Israel, Europe, and Hong Kong have recorded Omicron cases. However, the US has only banned travel from countries in Africa.
The consequences of travel bans are global. Experts warn imposing travel bans may deter countries from reporting new strains in the future, damaging the swift and transparent sharing of COVID-19 data between nations that have helped the world react to variants quickly. The economy is affected, too. Travel bans from 2020 have thrown many smaller countries into economic turmoil. Estimates show that travel bans cost upwards of $4 trillion globally. Countries that rely heavily on tourism see massive rises in unemployment as a result.
The scientific and economic data agree: travel bans do more harm than good. Our elected officials have promised to lead with 'science and truth.' Now is the time for such leadership.
Prohibiting travel in all forms also prohibits interaction between people who are potentially infected. When people travel internationally, they come in contact with people from other areas, which can and does expose these people and areas to the variant. By prohibiting travel, this risk is eliminated.
With the holidays approaching, many people have been traveling more since the start of the pandemic. And it's hard to disagree with the fact that it will certainly keep exposures down if travel is prohibited and people can't come into contact with others. While it may be uncomfortable to ban travel again—especially around the holidays—a travel ban would last a shorter time than the lockdown we will have to deal with if the variant spreads rapidly. Restricting travel will also help health officials isolate those exposed or infected while managing the spread of the variant as we learn how to combat it.
The CDC supports the belief that restricting travel is beneficial, and the CDC says traveling can increase exposure and this spreading of the variant. While some may disagree, it's important to listen to the medical professionals as they've gotten the country through the pandemic thus far and have been instrumental in keeping people safe.
The South African president is clearly biased in his statement claiming that shutdown and travel bans harm economies. As a result, the South African president is likely saying travel bans aren't helpful to protect his country's economy. While his concern is warranted, his words should be taken lightly as he's not a health expert.