COVID-19: How effective are travel bans?

It is two years since the pandemic named COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) was discovered in Wuhan, China. At the early stage when the disease was not clearly understood, there were panic reactions to it, with the assumption that it could be eradicated by the application of certain drastic actions.

However, two years after, it is obvious that COVID-19 is not in a hurry to leave. It may stay for up to a decade or more. In the past two weeks, some countries started another round of lockdowns because of rising infection rates. However, last week’s discovery of a new variant named Omicron threw some countries into panic mode anew. Some countries like the United Kingdom announced a ban on flights from some southern African countries (South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia), given their proximity to South Africa and Botswana where the variant had been discovered.

Expectedly, more countries will close their borders to certain countries or even to all countries. Then many international business activities will be on hold for some months.

Like the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States of America, Dr Anthony Fauchi, said, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 may already be in the United States already. His words: “We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and in other places – when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

Ironically, the countries shutting their borders to other countries that have not been known to have any case of the Omicron variant may have yet-to-be-discovered cases of it. As of the morning of Monday, November 29, 2021, 13 countries had reported cases of Omicron: Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada, and South Africa. This shows that Omicron has been detected on five continents. Interestingly, only African countries have been included in the lists of countries affected by the travel ban, an indication that other factors beyond health were considered before the imposition of the travel bans.

Just like the Delta variant, the Omicron variant will go round the round 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 realise it.

Even before the Omicron variant was discovered, some countries had started imposing internal lockdown measures because of rising figures of infections. Curiously, these are countries that have been playing different weekly sports competitions like football matches where footballers who sweat profusely come in contact with one another and thousands of spectators gather in stadiums to cheer their teams, sitting close together, screaming, spitting, coughing, and hugging in jubilation and celebration.

 Right from the beginning of this COVID-19 pandemic, experts warned that periodically, the virus would mutate. The Delta variant had been the most talked about variant of COVID-19 until last week when the Omicron variant was announced. Not much is known yet about this new variant. The World Health Organisation has stated that it will take weeks to grasp how the variant may affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. However, the South African doctor who first raised the alarm over the new strain has described the COVID-19 symptoms associated with Omicron as “extremely mild.” Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who is the chair of the South African Medical Association, told the BBC on Sunday that she started to see patients around November 18 presenting with “unusual symptoms” that differed slightly from those associated with the Delta variant.

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“It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33 … and he said to me that he’s just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he’s got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache,” she said. The doctor explained that the patient didn’t have a sore throat, but more of a “scratchy throat” with no cough or loss of taste or smell.

Dr Coetzee added: “What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I’m at the epicentre of this where I’m practising — is extremely mild. For us [these are] mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone. I’ve spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture.”

She noted that countries that have started applying travel bans against other countries may already have the Omicron variant without knowing it. COVID-19 has the capacity to mutate. Hitherto, some of the variants that had emerged were Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

South Africa has strongly criticised the travel bans against it. The country noted that “excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” adding that the bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

The World Health Organisation has cautioned countries against the hasty imposition of travel bans because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. According to WHO, “at this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against… WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”

WHO also commended the speed and transparency of the governments of South Africa and Botswana in informing the world about the new variant: “The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping to protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”

The danger in this type of quick travel ban against countries that are transparent and prompt in announcing such results is that some countries may start to apply secrecy in the reporting of issues concerning COVID-19, so as to avoid travel ban and isolation. This may further endanger the lives of people and delay the time it will take for COVID-19 to be eradicated from the world.

The COVID-19 response team of the United States has recommended that vaccinated adults get booster shots as quickly as possible, while the unvaccinated should get immunised. Countries should face the reality that COVID-19 is not about to disappear from the world. As long as there is one country where the disease exists, it will continue to go around the world, no matter the travel restriction measures applied by countries. In addition to applying known COVID-19 protocols, aggressive vaccination is the answer. The world cannot continue to be in panic mode endlessly because of COVID-19. The world should adapt to a new world of living with COVID-19 and managing it.

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