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Reality check: Governments had no option but to ban travel from Southern Africa

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We’ve seen a lot of complaints, anger, and outrage (faux and otherwise) coming from various quarters following the recent decision taken by a significant number of nations to ban travel from southern Africa, but a lot of it seems to be coming from people missing a few key points about how the world works and what the bans are actually about.

I’ll happily admit that most travel bans do not prevent the spread of new Covid variants, and that travel bans can cause serious damage to the economies of the countries suffering the bans, but anyone using these facts to attack the latest travel bans is missing the point entirely.

Two important facts

The facts are these:

  • Travel bans aren’t put in place to stop the spread of new Covid variants so saying that they don’t prevent the spread of Covid variants isn’t an argument against travel bans.
  • The primary responsibility of any government is to its own people and not to one or more foreign nations, so what the banned nations think about the bans is of no consequence to a government faced with keeping its own population happy.

With those two things in mind, let’s take a look at the situation that governments were facing when South Africa informed the WHO of the Omicron variant on 24 November 2021.

The situation

What we had at the time was a new “variant of concern” about which we knew very little. The only thing we knew for sure is that it has more mutations than we’ve seen in any other surviving variant to date.

The world was told that the presence of multiple mutations in specific areas of the virus’ make-up could:

a) Make Omicron a considerably more transmissible variant than any other variant that we’ve seen so far.

b) Make Omicron more resistant to vaccines than any other variant seen so far.

c) Make Omicron considerably more deadly than any other variant seen so far.

Because Omicron is so new, in the days leading up to the bans there was no scientific evidence to prove whether or not the variant is as deadly as its structure suggests that it could be, or if it is no more dangerous than the other variants we’ve been fighting since late 2019.

In fact, because scientists don’t work at the behest of the instant gratification society that we live in, we still don’t have enough evidence to be able to be sure how deadly or not the Omicront variant is.

What are governments to do?

Put yourself in the shoes of a government that has just been told that a new variant has been detected that could be considerably deadlier than anything we’ve seen to date.

What is this government to do?

If the government does nothing and the Omicron variant turns out to be frighteningly lethal, its citizens will view it as negligent for failing to take measures to protect them and the repercussions will be swift.

If the government puts in place visible measures to try to slow the importation of the variant and the variant runs rampant anyway, the government can point to the fact that it did its best with the information it had to hand.

If the government puts in place measures to try to slow the importation of the variant and the variant turns out to be nothing serious at all, how many of its citizens are going to complain? Answer: Very few.

Sure, the banned nations are going to complain and they have every right to, but do you really think that any government cares about another nation’s complaints when its own survival is at stake?

A lot of the governments who have imposed bans on travel from southern Africa took a lot of criticism from their citizens for failing to be on top of things when the pandemic first struck, so does anyone really think that it’s surprising that they have been very quick to act at the first sign of a potentially scary variant? Why wouldn’t they act? They have nothing to lose.

It’s not about stopping the variant

Everyone knows that a travel ban will not stop the spread of Omicron, but since when do we only enact measures that are 100% effective at stopping the virus from spreading?

We’ve spent the best part of two years wearing masks, observing social distancing rules, and generally putting our lives on hold to buy scientists the time they need to build the weaponry to fight Covid-19. None of those measures will stop the virus or defeat it, but we took (and continue to take) those measures because we understand the part they play in the overall war.

In a similar (albeit more short-term) way, that’s how the travel bans are being used.

In a war, when an army is fighting a rearguard action, military engineers don’t blow up railroads and bridges to disrupt an enemy’s transport options because they think that by doing so they will win the war. They do so to slow the enemy down to give their side a chance to regroup and rearm, and to give their side a little more time to prepare for the next assault.

That’s what the travel bans have been brought in to do.

Yes, people with the variant may already have made it past a country’s borders but, short-term, that’s not a reason not to do something to try to prevent hundreds of others from following.

Governments know that they need more time to try to get more people vaccinated and to get more booster shots handed out in case those measures help to reduce Omicron’s ability to lead us all into another horrible winter. Every day and every newly vaccinated person may make a difference, so why wouldn’t governments do what they can to buy more time?

Yes, more vaccines and more boosters may not help in the end, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be tried. What’s the alternative? Hope for the best?

The bans must be temporary and reviewed often

We know that Omicron is already in the US, the UK, Europe, Australia, and in various other parts of the world, and when it’s clear that Omicron is the prevalent variant in a country, that country’s travel bans become pointless (a bit like the travel bans the US had in place for far too long) and should be withdrawn.

I’m all in favor of keeping governments to account when it comes to travel bans (no ban should be in place indefinitely and they should be reviewed frequently and regularly), and I’m strongly in favor of making sure that the countries suffering the travel bans get as much help as we can afford to give them to keep their economies alive, but that doesn’t mean that the bans are pointless. They’re not.

Bottom Line

I don’t think anyone is happy to see travel bans being brought back at a time when we thought we could finally see the light at the end of the dark Covid tunnel, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unnecessary.

No country should be using travel bans as a long-term solution to this crisis and help should be given to countries being affected, but anyone suggesting that the bans are totally ineffective is missing the point entirely.

Governments have a duty of care to their citizens and will be held to account by those same citizens, so the fact that they’re prepared to use every weapon in their arsenal to try to fight off another bleak winter should be a surprise to no one…regardless of how effective or ineffective those weapons turn out to be.

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  1. It seems like you omitted one of the biggest reasons not to impose travel bans like this. It creates a terrible incentive – what country would encourage its scientists to announce an identification of a variant if doing so means that country ends up on travel ban lists immediately?

    You did point out many other excellent reasons not to impose travel bans like this. Doing so half-heartedly, exempting citizens, neutralizes nearly any benefit. Plus, as you observe, there’s very little benefit to a travel ban when we know that the variant was spreading well before it was identified.

    • A country should announce the emergence of diseases and viruses that pose a risk to the world regardless of self-interest. That’s a hugely idealistic point of view but it can be turned into a realistic point of view if those imposing bans offer the banned countries all the economic support that they need.

  2. While I think banning travels partially for its citizens is not so effective, I don’t have the scientific evidence to support it, so I leave that part. but it also would be nice to see actual studies on the effectiveness of the travel bans if you are going to support bans. From my personal experience, the UK travel bans and red list earlier this year just a huge show but completely ineffective. What I have a huge problem with is the fact that many developing, particularly African, countries often get banned without much logical reasoning. The virus was already in Germany and Netherland by the time that South africa announced it. No one knows it was originated in South africa, but ban south african and surrounding countries when some european countries already have the variant in the wild? This way of treating nations that discover variants gives them far less incentive to come forward when the next variant comes around.

    • “The virus was already in Germany and Netherland by the time that South africa announced it. No one knows it was originated in South africa, but ban south african and surrounding countries when some european countries already have the variant in the wild?”

      This misses the point that at the time the bans were implemented, none of the European based cases were known about.

      Furthermore, given that Omicron is already the dominant variant in South Africa (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-59503517) and that it is not, yet, the dominant strain in any European country,the argument that the variant may have originated in Europe and not South Africa doesn’t look like a strong one.

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