COVID-19 Travel Bans: Modern-day Discrimination?

How prolific are travel bans?

The COVID-19 virus has brought with it an onslaught of new rules and regulations. One of the biggest changes has been the restriction of travel. Almost all global destinations have imposed some kind travel restriction, with the inclusion of complete bans on travel, since January 2020. More specifically, according to a UNWTO report, 83% of European destinations have imposed complete border closures to tourism, and with 100% of all global destinations having imposed some kind of travel restriction. 

While travel restrictions of this nature and complete border closures are new to our society, it is not a completely foreign concept.

With that in mind, what travel bans existed before COVID-19?

Probably the most recent and well-known of these bans can be found in the Trump-era. Commonly labelled the Muslim banthe Trump administration enforced travel restrictions on travellers from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, and Myanmar. This received major criticism. Most were able to see this as an act of discrimination, largely targeting the global Muslim population. In January 2021, President Biden initiated the Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States in an attempt to prevent such forms of discrimination. 

Here, we can see that bans prior to COVID are largely viewed as negative by the international community. Those in favour of such visa restrictions are undoubtedly perceived as adopting a protectionist and nationalist attitude. In other words, we can see these bans as a response to fear- fear of the foreign and unknown- in a time when many are economically vulnerable. 

How are COVID-19 era bans perceived differently?

 In contrast to the above, COVID-19 era travel bans do not have the same reputation. While many have felt frustrated and inconvenienced by the prospect of being unable to go on holiday, most have viewed these restrictions as a necessary evil…obviously with the exclusion of COVID-19 denialists, but that is an entirely separate discussion. With the onset of the pandemic, this may very well have been the case. 

In June 2020, many countries had complete lockdowns banning all travel for differing periods. This included the likes of: 

Albania, Algeria, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Djibouti, East Timor, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Tajikistan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Not only were these indiscriminate and total travel bans, but taking a look at this list, the countries that adopted travel bans are mixture of both high- and low-income countries, as well as come from virtually every continent. Taking this into account, it does appear to be a purely containment policy in response to the pandemic. Are these restrictions REALLY as innocent as their governments claim them to be?

In recent times, some questions have emerged: Are travel bans purely containment policies? Are they truly without bias? Do they cross the line to discrimination?

In November 2021, South African scientists announced the discovery of the now infamous COVID-19 variant, Omicron. This triggered a global chain reaction. More specifically, most Western countries began announcing travel bans from mostly African countries, particularly those located in Southern Africa.

The United States, and the European Union were large advocates of these bans. The rationale was that the variant having been discovered in this region, we had to limit travel from Southern Africa to prevent the spread of the new and more contagious variant. This did not, however, take into the account how far spread this variant already was.  

South African scientists being responsible for the discovery of Omicron, the assumption that the variant originated in the region has been rather misleading. For context, as a result of South Africa’s ongoing TB and HIV epidemics, the country has some of the best virologists worldwide. As such, many labs were already extremely well adapted to the gene sequencing necessary to identifying new COVID-19 variants. And so, a case can be made for South Africa being the site of discovery, rather than that of origination. Interestingly, Dutch health authorities announced at the end of November 2021 that Omicron was in Europe prior to it being in South Africa. This is no surprise when considering that South Africa has had one of the strictest lockdowns globally- this includes the consistent enforcement of masks in all public spaces since March 2020, as well as a strict curfew imposed until the end of 2021. Consequently, we have Europe punishing Southern Africa for the spread of a variant, which, rather ironically, probably travelled from Europe itself down South. 

What are the consequences?

Not only did we see the separation of families over the Christmas period due to this ban, but we also see economic struggle. Specifically looking at South Africa, its economy is partially reliant on tourism. Since March 2020, this income has been practically removed entirely. With vaccinations on the rise and the relaxing of COVID restrictions in the usually tourist-riddled December period, December 2021 represented hope for all those in the already battered tourism industry. This ban went far beyond simple inconvenience. It threatened the financial security of a whole industry. 

Given the gravity of the consequences, and the lack of validity behind the ban, we must consider the way forward for travel bans. Should countries be able to ban travel from other nations so easily and nonchalantly? Should countries have to better justify bans? Should we be taking and all-or-nothing approach to COVID, i.e. the complete closure of borders, or free movement with COVID test and vaccination restrictions?