Margaret Brennan, the host of CBS’ Face the Nation, on Sunday, clashed with United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy over a travel ban President Joseph R. Biden Jr. imposed on eight African countries on November 26 after the Omicron variant was detected in Botswana on November 11 and reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on November 24.
The same travel ban was imposed on the eight African nations even though six of them had recorded no cases of the new variant and had been able so far to handle COVID-19 far better than the United States.
The travel ban on South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho and Eswatini has also remained in place even though new data indicates that the Omicron variant, which has been found in at least 16 states in the United States and in nearly 40 countries, was already in several parts of the world before it was successfully identified by South Africa.
Murthy said the travel ban was put in place because there was “a growing number, a rapid growing number of cases that were found in South Africa”.
He added that although the travel restrictions “don’t permanently keep the variant out” what they can do “is to buy you some time. They can buy you some time to do important things.”
But Brennan pushed back, noting that the Omicron variant was right inside the United States already, and wondered how the Biden administration’s travel ban on a select group of countries was any different from former President Donald Trump’s ban on travel only from China at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’ve heard this from the White House, respectfully. But my question though is what we learned at the beginning of this pandemic,” Brennan countered. “China is put under a travel ban. Meanwhile, in the back door, travelers coming in from Europe bringing in COVID. That was one of the facts established when we looked at pandemic preparedness.”
She continued, “You only right now have a travel ban on eight countries in southern Africa. The rest of the world is still traveling in. Omicron is already here. So if it’s a question of fairness it’s either all countries get banned or lift the ban. And you have scientists in South Africa saying this is discriminatory.”
President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, Anthony Stephen Fauci, said on Sunday that the Omicron-related bans were “done at a time when we were really in the dark.” He added that he was hopeful “we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time.”
African and world leaders have continued to blast the Biden administration for imposing travel bans on African nations that do not have the Omicron variant and for punishing Botswana and South Africa for detecting the variant and informing the world.
Just last Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres compared President Biden’s travel restrictions to “travel apartheid.”
He asserted that southern African nations that first detected the Omicron COVID-19 variant were being collectively punished with travel restrictions, and urged “common sense” to respond to the new variant.
“What is unacceptable is to have one part of the world – one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy – condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way, already existed in other parts of the the world, including in Europe, as we know,” Guterres told reporters.
“This is very strong appeal that I launch, an appeal to common sense,” the UN chief said. “We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, – travel apartheid – which I think is unacceptable.”
More than 50 governments have imposed travel restrictions on visitors from South Africa and Botswana where scientists first detected the Omicron variant, as well as several other African nations.
South Africa informed the WHO about the new variant B.1.1.529 on November 24 and two days later, the WHO named it Omicron and classified it as a ‘variant of concern’ because it has a large number of mutations.
But so far, those who have contracted the new variant have mostly developed mild symptoms and recovered. Health officials say it will take a couple of weeks before much is known about the severity of the new variant, and whether the travel restrictions should be lifted or maintained.