- Many medical experts were outraged when the US placed a travel ban on southern African countries.
- Experts told Insider the travel ban only stigmatizes countries and furthers global anti-Blackness.
- They want the travel ban to be ended immediately and for the US to further global vaccine equity.
When the Biden administration implemented a travel ban against southern African countries following the first detection of the Omicron coronavirus variant, US medical experts told Insider they were outraged.
Fast forward a month later, the White House has heeded calls from frustrated experts and is changing course. But some warn the damage has already been done.
“Stop the travel bans now,” Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the director of health for the city of St. Louis, told Insider. “If there is a good reason for them, release the data so that we can understand why those eight Black, African, low-income countries are continuing to be targeted by them.”
South Africa first reported the Omicron variant to the World Health Organization on November 24 — largely because the country has one of the most sophisticated surveillance programs in the world. Two days later, after the WHO dubbed Omicron a “variant of concern“, the US banned travelers from eight countries in the region: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini, Malawi, and Namibia.
The White House announced December 24 that it plans to lift the ban by year-end, but medical experts told Insider the US needs to do more than that.
Davis and her colleagues said the US has already perpetuated global anti-Blackness in public health and they want the US to do more to promote global vaccine equity.
Southern African leaders and medical experts called the travel ban ‘Afrophobia’
The global medical community has not seen a science-based explanation to ban travel from eight southern African countries, Davis said.
Only two of the eight countries banned — Botswana and South Africa — had reported an Omicron case before the US identified its first on December 1.
African leaders harshly criticized the US’s and European countries’ move to limit travel from southern Africa.
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera wrote on Facebook that “Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla called the bans “unjustified” and said, “We must work together, not punish each other,” adding, “Witch hunts don’t benefit anyone.”
And Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said “travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity.”
“We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” Moeti said.
Dr. Oni Blackstock, a doctor with roots in HIV research, said the travel bans only perpetuate stigma and isolate those countries.
“This adds to this misconception about Sub-Saharan Africa,” Blackstock told Insider. “The United States and other European countries were so quick to institute these travel bans for these countries without waiting to collect more information and see what are the other alternatives that might actually be more effective to limiting the spread of these variants.”
Botswana-based scientist Sikhulile Moyo first identified the Omicron variant in travelers from Europe, and he said he was “saddened” by the travel bans against southern African countries.
The Netherlands said at the end of November that its first Omicron case dated back to November 19 — supporting the possibility that South Africa wasn’t where the variant originated.
—Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 27, 2021
Davis and Blackstock said this is why they question the motive behind the bans. Davis said with the data we have now, travel bans merely “perpetuate Afrophobia, racism, xenophobia, and stigma.”
Medical historian says the legacy of colonialism has played out during the pandemic
For Mari K. Webel, a medical African history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, the travel ban gave her flashbacks to the long colonial history of medical neglect, segregation, and experimentation on the continent of Africa.
In 2014, the US implemented travel restrictions for travelers from three African countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — during the Ebola epidemic, and limited travelers from those countries to only fly into select US airports.
“Even if it’s not overtly stated, what you have is this implication that there is something inherently aberrant or non-normative associated with Africanness,” Webel said. “That is patently not the case.”
She was horrified as she watched two French doctors in April 2020 propose using Africa as a testing ground for coronavirus vaccines. Webel said that showed how the power dynamics remain between former colonial powers in Europe and the African countries they colonized.
“They’re saying in an African country it would be easier than anywhere else,” Webel said. “That tells you something about racism, and how people understand regulations to function and what you can do and what you can’t do. And I think that same implication is baked into jumping to immediately think Omicron had something to do with South Africa’s general public health system or with Africa.”
Instead of seeing South Africa as having state-of-the-art science technology with data sequencing for the virus, Webel said, the world penalized them because of the historical perception of disease tied to Africa.
“The effort to really do careful investigative work about the extent of the spread of the new variant and have those sequences available lighting-fast is astoundingly impressive,” Webel said. “It’s fantastic. And that was the first thing I thought of. Scientists knocked it out of the park here.”
Experts call for global vaccine equity
Whether it be the travel bans or the African continent’s worryingly low vaccination rate, Davis, Blackstock, and Webel told Insider this pandemic has exposed an uncomfortable truth about global public health: anti-Blackness is still deeply embedded in it.
Webel brought to light how it took drug companies in wealthier nations five years to bring an Ebola vaccine to market when the COVID-19 vaccines took less than a year.
The medical experts told Insider they want the US to end travel bans immediately and do more to promote global vaccine equity.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, has also raised the alarm about the inequity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
“Narrow nationalism and vaccine hoarding by some countries have undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of the Omicron variant,” he wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “And the longer inequity continues, the higher the risks of this virus evolving in ways we can’t prevent or predict.”