Thanksgiving Day in the US this year was supposed to mark another step in a return to normal as more people traveled than at any time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The next morning, the world awoke to alarming news of a new and potentially dangerous variant of the virus identified by scientists in South Africa. As expected, stock markets tumbled, and governments imposed travel bans on southern African nations. Over the weekend, the WHO officially declared it a “variant of concern” and named it “omicron,” the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
Scientists are working frantically to find out more about the omicron variant, but it will take time for a full understanding to emerge. Three questions are key. Is the variant more transmissible? Is it more lethal? And are vaccines effective against it? Finding answers to these questions is essential to developing effective mitigation and prevention policies.
In meantime, leaders and public health authorities are left in an uncomfortable position. The do not have enough information to recommend new actions, but they open themselves up to public and media scorn if they appear to be doing nothing. This leaves them with symbolic measures, such as travel bans, and renewed calls for people to get vaccinated and boosted.
At a deeper level, the current omicron limbo highlights the limits of national power. Since COVID-19 first began to spread, the WHO and public health experts have called for great cooperation among nations in developing a pandemic response. They have repeatedly warned against vaccine hoarding and travel bans because they are unfair and hinder efforts to bring the pandemic under control.
For rich and powerful nations, buying vaccines and controlling borders are within national capability; they have the means and the power to do it. These actions are easier than unpopular domestic shutdowns and other restrictions that stir resistance and worsen political polarization. When conditions improve, leaders can easily lessen border controls, pointing to them as a sign that things are returning to normal.
Sure enough, within hours of the news of omicron, the UK, EU, US, and others began imposing travel bans on nations in southern Africa. South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa quickly criticized the actions, saying that “the only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.” The president of nearby Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, joined the criticism, saying that “Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.” The WHO and public health experts also criticized that travel bans, reflecting their consistent stance against them.
Back in the US, the sharpness of the criticism put the Biden administration on the defensive. The charge of Afrophobia has struck a chord and the media has begun to report more aggressively on the limitations of travel bans. Finding himself on the defensive, Biden recently stated that the ban would be evaluated “week to week.”
Opposition to travel bans does not mean opposition to public health measures designed to the stop the spread of a new variant across borders. This is where South Korea comes in. When the pandemic hit, South Korea closed its borders, as did many nations, but reopened them with testing and quarantine requirements. Instead of focusing on limiting travel or keeping people out, as neighboring Japan has done, South Korea focused on making travel as safe as possible. As vaccination rates improved in 2021, the measures have been relaxed to varying degrees.
The way forward, then, is for nations to cooperate to make travel as safe as possible. The obvious place to start is an intensive push for universal vaccination. Leaving poor nations with low vaccination only creates the conditions for another round of panic and death from a future variant. Near universal vaccination will not eradicate COVID-19, but it will turn it into a manageable disease that no longer interferes with our lives.
Vaccinating the world will take time, however, so nations must cooperate to strengthen safety measures now. Requiring vaccinated travelers to quarantine suggests that the vaccines are not effective, which only feeds vaccine hesitancy. Instead, emphasis should be placed on requiring vaccination to travel and efficient and convenient testing during the travel process. And the world urgently needs a globally recognized vaccine certificate for travel.
While we wait for more information on omicron, nations should begin discussions about building structures and practices that promote cooperation to end this pandemic and to prepare for future public health emergencies.