On the surface, restricting travel from a specific region where a variant to a life-threatening virus has been detected seems to make sense. It sounds like a swift, precautionary move, made in an effort to slow the spread of that variant. That’s not really the case, according to researchers and other infectious disease and health policy experts, particularly when considering the travel bans placed on southern African countries after the recent detection and reporting of the omicron variant of COVID-19. These bans have even been called “unfair and punitive” and a kind of “travel apartheid” by the secretary-general of the United Nations.
“It remains disappointing that some countries continue to block direct flights from southern Africa due to the omicron variant,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, tweeted on Dec. 5. “Respect is owed to the science and technology expertise in African countries as well as their transparency and sharing, including data related to the omicron variant of concern. This is helping to ensure a safer world for all people everywhere.”
One glaring contradiction to barring travel, according to the WHO’s emergencies director, has been countries banning entry from those regions, except for returning citizens when those same citizens could be carrying the variant on the flight home. A better response, policy experts and researchers argue, is to address the inequities in global vaccine distribution in order to prevent the continued development of variants and mutations of the virus.
Godfried Asante is an associate professor of communication, difference and disparities at San Diego State University. His work focuses on the ways social inequalities are sustained, and how health disparities, social injustice, and other forms of social violence and bigotry are normalized. He took some time to discuss the recent travel bans targeting southern Africa and the role vaccine distribution could play in those restrictions. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: Why would this kind of travel ban in this situation be considered “unfair and punitive”?
A: Travel bans tend to not necessarily be effective, especially in a context where the virus tends to travel, and the variants that emerge are already in the United States and other countries before we even detect it. It becomes more political theater, with the idea that governments are doing something immediately to prevent the virus from spreading. In actuality, it’s already here and already spreading.
This affects African countries, in particular, because most African countries rely on transportation and tourism. Part of what these travel bans do is constrict that, creating unnecessary precautions that don’t necessarily translate into actually curbing the spread of the virus.
Q: What kinds of material consequences result from these kinds of travel bans, particularly for the countries/regions on the receiving end of them?
A: For example, in Ghana, we launched a huge campaign two years ago, for African Americans to come to Ghana and reconnect with their roots. Ghana has two of the major castles that were used to transport enslaved people to the Americas, so there has been a push toward tourism. South Africa’s economy has been hit tremendously due to COVID. In their recovery, they need that kind of tourism money to revive their economy.
Q: Why would those consequences matter to people who live in countries that have enacted these travel bans?
A: I would say that it should matter because we now live in an intimate, global world. Whatever happens in other countries, most likely, will connect to what is occurring here, in the United States. A big part of why we should care here, is in thinking about supply chain challenges that we are currently experiencing, with materials and goods coming from other places. I think it’s crucial to know that people are trading partners, and that our economy is connected to the economies of other countries. There are mining companies, or Africans who may want to travel and spend money in San Diego. Some nongovernmental organizations help women who are experiencing hardships in some of these countries — helping them to create goods like lotions, soaps or jewelry — and they rely on the movement of people between the U.S. and their own country to source materials and distribute and sell goods.
When these bans are in place, they create an interruption, or otherwise disrupt the movement of people to bring goods to the marketplace.
Q: Since the vaccines were first being widely distributed in more developed and wealthy nations, there’s been criticism about the inequity of how the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed. Can you talk about vaccine distribution inequity and the repercussions of it?
A: The repercussions of vaccine distribution inequity will lead us to see variants continue to emerge if we allow this virus to spread. Part of the worry here (with regard to vaccine distribution), that I’ve had in the past, is that there was a misconception that the virus was not having a dire effect on the African continent. There were all kinds of stereotypes, and sometimes flat-out misinformation, about the fact that the virus couldn’t take heat. There was the assertion that because the majority of the continent is tropical and/or warm, the virus wasn’t spreading, but that was not the case. There was also other misinformation about the fact that Africans are taking chloroquine because of malaria — with former President Donald Trump referencing that as a treatment against COVID-19 — that led to the misinformed belief that Africans were somehow resistant to the virus.
I think, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was less attention paid to the fact that, perhaps Africans will need enough of the vaccine in order for the virus not to spread, because of these growing misconceptions. Now, we have multiple variants, with one of the first being reported from India, and now South African researchers identifying omicron. These variants are being attached to the country that identifies them, even though omicron is not from South Africa [the Netherlands reported finding the variant in samples dating back to Nov. 19, before South Africa first reported finding it on Nov. 24. Nigeria found omicron in a traveler’s sample retested from October, according to NBC News].
I’m not surprised that there’s a new variant. I think, if we do not extend and provide more vaccine doses to some of these other countries, we will eventually see more variants and we will suffer more, and have to develop new vaccines. If we want to curtail the emergence of new variants, we definitely need to help with greater vaccine distribution.
Q: What kind of role do you think this inequity plays in the travel ban against southern African countries?
A: I think we’re not expanding enough vaccine provisions into parts of Africa. Something like less than 10 percent of African nations are projected to hit their year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their people [according to the WHO]. That is huge. To not provide the vaccine and also issue a travel ban, is rather punitive. If you provide the vaccines, I think they could have some sort of rationale for these bans. Instead, there is a hoarding of vaccine doses and not distributing them to the world, including the African continent, yet we are putting these travel bans in place, almost to the point of weakening the economy, and potentially creating more variants that could kill people.
Q: Some would argue that the countries and governments that fund and develop these vaccines should decide the terms of their distribution. What’s your response to that argument?
A: That would make sense if we weren’t in a global pandemic. The question is why companies aren’t allowing the intellectual property of the vaccines to be replicated in other countries. India has a massive center for reproducing vaccines, and South Africa and Nigeria recently decided to try and reproduce the vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer say that, even if they shared that information, these countries do not have the equipment to reproduce the vaccines. So, first, we need to be able to train people on the equipment to produce them. The argument you mention is fair, but we’re already two years into this pandemic, so it’s hard to see the relevance of these barriers that are in place right now. We could have provided support and shared intellectual property, but we are not doing so.
Then, we won’t allow people to travel from these countries. These restrictions put an extra burden on our economy and on our potential to learn and educate ourselves about the virus, to be able to share ideas with others. I think that is still very punitive. So while this argument about dictating the terms of vaccine distribution makes sense in principle, I don’t think it helps during this pandemic. Whatever happens in another country, is very likely to affect us, so I don’t think that principle should be applied here because we are all connected.
Q: Do you think richer/more developed nations should be compelled to donate or otherwise provide increased doses to poorer/less developed nations?
A: Absolutely. I think they should be compelled, and the World Health Organization director also makes that clear that they should. Part of the wealth of these countries in Europe and the West comes from the extraction of wealth in African countries. That tends to be overshadowed, but some of these mining companies and oil companies, some of them are based in parts of Africa, so there is still an extraction of wealth from the continent. There are several reports that have looked into the way that the African economy is more of a wealth extraction economy. If that’s the case, given the pandemic, I think it’s morally right for richer nations to share what they have so far.
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