The Omicron travel ban was ineffective, as expected.
NewsReports that because of the outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the United Kingdom, and Canada lifted their travel bans on Nigeria and some African countries last week. The reasons for lifting the ban were nearly identical in both countries.
“Now that there is community transmission of Omicron in the UK and Omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told parliament.
Similarly, Canadian Health Minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, said: “While we recognize the controversial nature of such a prohibition, we believe it was a necessary measure to slow the arrival of Omicron in Canada… But with Omicron now spreading within Canada it is no longer needed… With the evolving situation and overwhelming evidence of community transmission of Omicron in most countries around the world, we have taken the decision to lift the specific measures for travelers returning from the 10 countries initially listed.”
The decision by some countries to impose travel bans on some African countries when the Omicron variant was reported last month was criticized as selective, discriminatory, and hasty. However, the countries involved had argued that the travel ban was meant to be a proactive measure against the spread of the new variant.
In this column on November 30, 2021, we had argued that the travel ban was unnecessary and ineffective against the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. We had written inter alia: “Just like the Delta variant, the Omicron variant will go round the world whether countries close their borders or not. The reason is that the world is interconnected, and COVID-19 is spread in ways that are not easy to prevent. Sometimes, the virus has been spread before authorities realize it.”
By the end of November, 13 countries had reported the existence of Omicron in their territories. By December 2, Omicron had been detected in 30 countries. By December 8, it had spread to 57 countries. By December 14, it had been reported in 77 countries. And by December 19, Omicron had spread to 89 countries.
All reports about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 yet show that it is highly transmissible but mild in impact. In comparison, the Delta variant is deadlier even though it does not spread as quickly as the Omicron variant.
Banning some African countries at a time the variant was already in Europe, North America, Asia, and Oceania (continents which were curiously excluded from the travel ban) did not serve any positive purpose except to create images of discrimination, which should be avoided in the global fight against this pandemic. COVID-19 is like air which cannot be banned from moving around. When COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and became widely known in early 2020, countries panicked and closed their borders and took other measures to combat its spread. Nonetheless, it spread around the world.
After two years of knowing much about this virus, it is surprising that some countries of the world still reacted to it in a panicky, predictable, and ineffective way. As we noted in that article, the danger in panicky travel bans on some African countries is that countries may not be eager to announce new variants for fear of being stigmatized and singled out for travel bans.
COVID-19 is not in a hurry to go. It will continue for some years to come. And as long as it exists in one country, it cannot be stopped from infecting people in other countries.
Two years after the emergence of COVID-19 in China, the Omicron variant has displaced the Delta variant in attention. It was first known on November 24, 2021, when a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, was reported to the World Health Organisation. This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana and on November 14, 2021, in South Africa. On November 26, 2021, WHO named the B.1.1.529 Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern.
The World Health Organisation has advised that vaccination will be effective against the Omicron variant. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention stated: “Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.”
In their joint article in Time of December 15, 2021, titled “Let’s Not Be Fatalistic about Omicron. We Know How to Fight It,” health professionals Gavin Yamey, William Hanage, and Tom Moultrie noted that a concerted global approach against Omicron and COVID-19 is the way out. “Omicron is teaching us a lesson: our only way out of this pandemic is through global, not national, action, to immunize and boost the world while also using other public health measures to drive down transmission and protect health systems. Omicron will be a harsh teacher. It remains to be seen if we can finally be good students,” they observed.
Advising against panic reactions to COVID-19, they said: “Our goal must be to reopen society in a way that does not cause mass illness and death. SARS-CoV-2 is not going to be eradicated, and we need to plan and prepare for what lies on the other side of the current Omicron wave. We can aim for a situation in which COVID-19 still circulates but there is much less transmission and much less severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, perhaps with seasonal peaks – a scenario akin to influenza. For that to happen, we’re going to need to vaccinate and boost the vast majority of people worldwide.”
Countries should fight the pandemic as a group rather than the current individual national approach. The world should adopt ways of smartly living with COVID-19. These include increased enlightenment, enforcement of wearing of masks, social distancing, washing of hands, cleaning of surfaces, use of air purifiers, boosting of immunity with immune boosters and natural fruits and vegetables, and, most importantly, full vaccination plus booster shots where necessary and available.
The time has come for the world to stop dancing to the tune of COVID-19 and stop taking the same measures that yield no result but hurt the well-being of countries and individuals. It is time for the world to breathe again.