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Omicron’s Travel Bans Rest on Shaky Logic

A travel ban seems like common sense, but the science is less clear.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A sign urges people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
A sign urges people to get the COVID-19 vaccine at the Staten Island Ferry terminal in New York City on Nov. 29. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Countries rush to restrict travel from southern Africa over the omicron variant, NATO foreign ministers meet in Latvia, and Food and Drug Administration advisors consider a COVID-19 pill.

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Omicron Travel Bans Prompt African Outcry 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Countries rush to restrict travel from southern Africa over the omicron variant, NATO foreign ministers meet in Latvia, and Food and Drug Administration advisors consider a COVID-19 pill.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Omicron Travel Bans Prompt African Outcry 

While scientists work to unravel the potential impact of the omicron coronavirus variant, countries have been swift to enact border closures of one form or another just as restrictions were beginning to ease.

The harshest have been imposed by Israel and Japan, which have banned entry for all nonresidents, regardless of their origin or destination.

Others have been more piecemeal: The United States has banned non-citizens traveling from eight southern African countries—although only two have confirmed omicron cases—while allowing U.S. citizens to return home. The European Union has proposed similar measures.

Almost two years after initial blanket travel bans, their efficacy is again in question. South Africa, the country that first raised the alarm about omicron, has led the criticism on the border measures, which threaten the region’s shaky economic recovery. Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera has concurred, calling the bans a form of “Afrophobia.”

Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Africa, has backed the South African and Botswanan governments for bringing the new variant to light. “WHO stands with African countries, which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19,” Moeti said. “Putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity.”

As Karen Grépin, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong, explained in the Washington Post, travel restrictions tend to slow the spread of the virus only when applied strictly, with lengthy quarantines on all arriving travelers essential to preventing further community transmission. Softer restrictions, like those where citizens are allowed to return home from suspected at-risk countries without hindrance, undermine any good intentions behind the travel bans. Indeed, the mass return of U.S. citizens from Europe to overcrowded U.S. airports in March 2020 likely helped spread COVID-19 in the United States.

Even studies of travel bans usefulness enacted early in the pandemic weren’t perfect, since most came into effect at the same time that Chinese authorities imposed their own internal ban on travel from Wuhan, China. Experts said bans can help delay the spread of the virus by days or weeks at best.

With the omicron variant already found in 19 countries, 17 of which are not in southern Africa, the logic behind banning travel from that region appears flawed. As journalist Larry Elliott put it in the Guardian, Western restrictions are “a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

In February 2020, weeks before then-U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a sweeping travel ban on dozens of countries, global health policy expert Mara Pillinger explored why governments still reach for travel restrictions despite their dubious efficacy. Writing in Foreign Policy, Pillinger explained that the combination of bans appearing as common sense and politicians lacking politically viable alternatives keeps them coming back, whether the disease is Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or the latest COVID-19 variant.

What We’re Following Today

NATO ministers meet. NATO foreign ministers gather in the Latvian capital, Riga, today for two days of meetings, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in attendance. The ministers are expected to discuss preparations for a NATO leaders summit in Madrid in June as well as tensions along Ukraine’s Russian border and the migrant crisis along Belarus’s EU borders.

The group’s meeting comes as Russia and Belarus announced joint military exercises on Monday. The drills are expected take place in the “medium term,” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said, as he expressed concern over the “militarization of our neighboring countries.”

COVID-19 treatments. Advisors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) meet today on whether to recommend emergency approval to a new pill developed by Merck to treat COVID-19. Confidence in the pill’s efficacy has been dented after trial results released on Friday showed it reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk patients by 30 percent; earlier estimates put that figure at 50 percent. The U.S. government has already committed to purchasing 3.1 million courses of the drug for $2.2 billion.

Keep an Eye On

India’s farmers’ protests. India’s upper and lower houses passed a bill on Monday to repeal three controversial agricultural reform bills that sparked mass protests among India’s farmers over the past year. The farmers demands do not end with repeal, however, as farmer groups now push for an expansion of state subsidies, currently on rice and wheat, to cover all crops.

Iran talks. Enrique Mora, the EU official chairing attempts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, said the resumption of talks on Monday was “extremely positive,” as other negotiators also expressed optimism for the seventh round of discussions between world powers and Iran.

Russia’s representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the talks started “quite successfully,” while Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, assented when asked whether he was optimistic about the direction of negotiations. Despite rosy projections, hurdles lie ahead, as Bagheri Kani demands U.S. sanctions be lifted before other topics are discussed, a position that has been a sticking point on the U.S. side.

FP Recommends

Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has successfully skewered McDonald’s Peace Theory and delved deep into former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut endorsement deal, is back with another piece on how junk food and history align: unpicking the truth behind PepsiCo’s purchase of 17 submarines from the Soviet Union as part of its doomed bet on the longevity of a crumbling regime.

Odds and Ends

Dozens of pub patrons, staff, and an Oasis tribute band have finally gone home after enduring three nights stuck in the Tan Hill Inn in northern England after a snowstorm blocked roads. A snowplow eventually cleared a path for the trapped group to exit, but not before many were forced to sleep on the inn’s floor, kept warm by mattresses and blankets provided by staff. Nicola Townsend, the inn’s general manager, said the end of the ordeal was bittersweet “because we’ve had such a good time meeting new friends, getting to know new people.” The Tan Hill Inn’s temporary residents faired better than others across the region, as Storm Arwen cut power to tens of thousands of homes.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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