[Column] Linda Weaver: Bias-driven travel bans are an ineffective response to variants
The knee-jerk travel bans imposed late last year in response to Omicron were inconvenient for many – particularly given the holiday season. But they were also deeply destructive: separating families and loved ones; undercutting businesses and livelihoods; and causing further economic losses. While most countries have lifted the restrictions, the ripple effects will continue to be felt for months to come.
And it is important that we understand the costs, so that we exercise greater care as we deal with future variants.
South African resident, Nonye Mpho Omotola, was one of millions of people who were affected.
“I live in Johannesburg and had been hoping to travel to Nigeria to see my father, who was ill earlier in 2021, before the discovery of the Omicron variant. However, my plans to see him were scuppered when travel between Nigeria and South Africa was banned. Unfortunately, my father, whom I was very close to, has since passed away.”
Omotola, who is fully vaccinated, also tried to get to the UK to visit her mother who suffers from dementia and lives in a care home. “Trying to explain to her that I can’t visit her due to a global pandemic and because the UK placed South Africa on a ‘red’ travel list was very difficult,” she admits.
The personal losses are only compounded by the economic ones. Prior to the pandemic, South Africa’s tourism sector supported approximately 800 000 jobs and contributed more than R130 billion to the country’s economy. Covid-19 and its variants decimated the sector. When Omicron was discovered – by South African scientists, no less! – the red-listing of South Africa by more than 70 countries exacerbated the damage. The Tourism Business Council of South Africa estimates that the South African tourism sector lost approximately R26 million for every day that it remained on the UK’s red list. Prior to that, the discovery of the Beta variant resulted in South Africa being placed on the UK’s red list for almost 10 months and cost the South African economy an estimated R8 billion in lost tourism spend.
We now know that Omicron and Beta were already circulating in many parts of the world before South African scientists identified them. Omicron was in the UK at least four days before South Africa raised the alarm to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was in the Netherlands a week before and in Canada’s Nova Scotia wastewater several weeks before. Yet South African travellers were among the most restricted travellers globally in the first half of 2021.
The costs of travel bans are wide-ranging, with multiple human and economic dimensions. As tourism, hospitality and adjacent sectors are affected, it costs jobs and livelihoods. South Africa’s commercial film production sector, for example, lost more than 100 projects valued at an estimated R500 million leaving local freelance crew, models and actors without an income.
These costs are not necessary. The World Health Organisation and Africa CDC have been clear that blanket travel bans do not prevent the spread of the virus. Countries must make this a part of the careful calculus that goes into the difficult decisions around how to contain the virus.
“Rather than imposing a knee-jerk travel ban, countries need to have a proper rationale for imposing a travel ban; particularly if travellers are fully vaccinated,” agrees Weaver. “It’s a different debate when unvaccinated travellers are concerned. All indications are that it is going to become increasingly difficult to travel if you are unvaccinated.”
Linda Weaver is a travel communications specialist