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Op-Ed: Omicron is already in the U.S. Discriminatory travel bans for southern Africa need to end

Passengers pull suitcases and eat at airport gates
Travelers walk through Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. A recent travel ban imposed by the U.S. on eight southern African countries exempted American citizens and permanent residents.
(Associated Press )

While the world’s scientists are scrambling to unravel the inner workings of the Omicron variant, not enough people are talking about the elephant in the room: the southern Africa travel ban that remains in place.

When South African scientists identified a new coronavirus variant in their country, the Biden administration’s immediate response was to ban travel from eight African countries: South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. At that time, only two of the countries — South Africa and Botswana — had confirmed cases. And a week after South Africa’s report, news broke that Europe had confirmed cases before South Africa identified the variant.

As more countries detect cases of the Omicron variant, conferences and business gatherings are being canceled. U.S. travel hasn’t yet been curtailed.

Last week, Biden announced new travel rules to help protect Americans, but there was no mention of lifting the travel ban from southern Africa, even though the variant has now been detected in dozens of countries, including the U.S. The ban also exempts U.S. citizens and permanent residents, which is clearly discriminatory to Africans. On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, admitted that he feels “very badly” about the restrictions, which the U.S. is reviewing and he hopes will “be able to lift … within a quite reasonable period of time.”

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This overreach in the pandemic response was a fruitless effort to keep out the Omicron variant — the first U.S. case was reported in California on Dec. 1. And it shows again the pernicious and persistent stereotypes of Africa that can do enormous damage.

For generations, many outsiders have viewed the continent as one homogenous land of people whose lives are plagued with famine, war and disease — stereotypes perpetuated by Western media emphasizing African conflict and corruption. Only in recent decades has there been a shift toward a new “Africa rising” narrative, with Africans reclaiming their stories and ownership of their economic growth.

Yet now, South Africa has become a scapegoat in the latest chapter of COVID-19.

Outside the U.S., countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia closed their borders to southern African travelers. South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, quickly rebuked global leaders for their discrimination. Instead of acknowledging the ingenuity of South African scientists who identified the new variant, the U.S. and others chose to isolate the southern Africa region.

Banning travel from a wide swath of Africa feeds the single story that novelist Chimamanda Adichie warned about in her famous speech about the dangers of telling a simplified narrative about the continent. Many still think of Africa as one country, defined by having the poorest people in the world. Despite African nations’ recent economic growth and positive portrayals in popular culture, the travel bans reinforce old views that Africa is an inferior place that should be avoided.

Health officials reported Los Angeles County’s second and third cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus Monday, a USC student who visited the East Coast and a traveler to western Africa.

From the outset, the pandemic has been laced with nationalism and racism, from Trump stoking fears of the “Chinese virus” to local authorities in Guangzhou, China forcing Africans from their homes reportedly amid COVID fears. The Biden administration could have set a good example in working productively with South Africa, Africa’s third largest economy, and its neighbors, in sharing valuable public health information globally.

Instead, our leaders missed a prime opportunity to give South Africa its due credit while changing the stereotypical narrative.

As the pandemic has shown the world, we are all in this together. Rather than distancing ourselves with each new case or variant, countries need to team up to develop a coordinated global response that provides quicker and equitable access to vaccines, combined with adequate tracing and vaccine mandates — particularly since large populations of unvaccinated people make it easier for COVID to mutate into new variants like Omicron. Currently, only 11% of the population in Africa has received at least one dose of vaccine, compared with 72% in the U.S. and Canada and 63% in Europe.

Now that the variant has reached America, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to set the record straight by lifting the senseless southern Africa travel ban immediately. Help tell a new story — one rejecting racism to praise South Africans for their efforts to protect not only their country, but all of humanity. That’s an attitude other countries would do well to emulate amid a global crisis.

April L. Raphiou is communications director at the Duke Center for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.


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