Franz Rodenacker

Dec 5, 2021

3 min read

The travel ban debate

There are at least three separate issues that are frequently lumped together in the “travel ban” discussion in South Africa.

The first issue is vaccine equality and how to get the developing world vaccinated. There can be no doubt that there is no vaccine equality and that developed countries are hoarding vaccines. They are not doing enough to pass them on to developing countries, which harms developing nations and may well contribute to the emergence of new variants there.

At the same time, an honest effort at getting higher vaccination rates means not only demanding developing nations to share their vaccines. It is also necessary to demand that all South Africans that have this opportunity get their jab. There is a measure of hypocrisy and populism in blaming governments in far away countries without having the hard conversation with ones own antivaxxer friends. Where vaccines are available, like in many places in South Africa, the unvaccinated are just as much to blame for low vaccination rates here as vaccine hoarding is in developed world.

The second issue is how South Africa’s scientists should, in light of the international response to their discovery of the Omicron variant, handle scientific findings in the future. Some South African scientists claim they are the victims of unjust punishment and warn that the repercussions of their revelation might lead them to withhold such learnings. The question here is essentially whether it is justifiable for a scientist to withhold potentially life-saving information from the public for economic or political reasons.

We should be clear that, regardless of how we feel about travel restrictions, this is something we should not accept or applaud, but should reject in the strongest terms. Scientists have a responsibility to reveal any findings that might affect the public, especially those related to the pandemic, and must do this regardless of the potential economic or political consequences.

The third issue is the question whether travel restrictions are another heartless, nationalistic and economically motivated initiative of xenophobic governments in developing nations or a measured response to a potentially highly deadly threat to their health systems and the lives of many people. This is the most heated debate because what we know about Omicron is, at this point, just not enough to make a definitive judgement. It also seems unlikely that this question can be resolved until we know more about the transmissibility of Omicron, how it affects the health of vaccinated, healed and unvaccinated people and how it will therefore affect health systems around the world.

It must be said that it is not truthful to claim that the travel restrictions are designed to stop the variant in its tracks. Instead they are designed to slow the spread. When looking at the community spread of Omicron in South Africa, then restricting people from this country to travel will keep the variant in South Africa for longer and will hence most likely at least partially have the desired effect.

This does not mean that travel restrictions do not cause suffering in affected nations, they most definately do. However, to focus only on effects on South Africans is one-sided and shows no empathy for the people in developed nations. They too struggle with the effects of the pandemic on their economies and health systems as well as their income and personal lives. In truth, both perspectives in this debate have valid points to make, and to come to a successful resolution in this matter means to acknowledge this. Calling people xenophobic is populist, polemic and does not contribute to making anyones life better.

There must be a better way than the mudslinging contest that is characterising this debate in South Africa at the moment. For example, affected nations and their people could demand for developing nations to financially compensate affected economies and individuals for the loss of income caused by travel restrictions. This is a reasonable and rational demand that acknowledges the hardship the restrictions represent to South Africans and provides a workable, reasonable solution the developed nations can also support.