White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday defended President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s travel ban on some southern African nations but not European countries, saying that they have ‘thousands’ of Omicron cases while Europe does not.
At her regular press briefing which was dominated by questions on the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Psaki was asked to react to the assertion by Andy Slavitt, who was a COVID-19 advisor to President Biden a few months ago, that wide distribution of vaccines not travel bans was the solution to combating new variants.
“What’s the President’s response to Andy Slavitt — who, of course, was a COVID advisor here in the White House just a few months ago — saying that it would be better to provide mass shipments of the vaccine — hundreds of millions of vaccines — to Southern Africa rather than having travel bans?” asked Yamiche Léone Alcindor, who is the host of Washington Week, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a political contributor to NBC News and MSNBC.
“Well, I would say, one, we are providing — we are far and away the world’s largest provider of vaccine doses, vaccine know-how, vaccine support, as I noted — including to Southern Africa — of any country in the world,” Psaki began her response. “And the President, on the advice of his health and medical team, put in place these restrictions because he’s going to err on the side of protecting the American people. And even though our expectation is it will slow, not prevent, the movement of this new variant, that will give us time to get more people vaccinated, more people boosted in the United States, and ensure we learn more about this variant. So we’re going to do both.”
Yamiche pushed back, asking Psaki to explain the difference between a few cases and more cases when it takes only one person to bring the variant to the United States.
“You said, just a few moments ago, there are hundreds of cases in Africa and only a few or as many — not as many in Europe. Could you talk about the science behind that? Is that what the President’s scientists are telling him — that because there are hundreds of cases,” Yamiche asked. Psaki interjected, “thousands.” Yamiche continued, “Thousands of cases in South (Africa), I was just reading what you said — but, yeah, thousands of cases in Africa and not as many in Europe, that’s the science behind why a travel ban needs to be in place?”
“Because I guess I’m just trying to understand why if one person, let’s say in Germany or somewhere else, gets on a plane and comes to the United States, isn’t that person — just as likely to have the variant end up in the United States? Could you just talk a little bit more about the science behind the reasoning there?”
Psaki responded, “Sure. Well, I think the larger point, Yamiche, is that it is a much larger spread in South Africa than it is at this point in Europe and other countries. We will continue to assess if there are additional restrictions that need to be put in place. But, again, this is not about punishing anyone; this is about protecting the American people. So when there are thousands of people — or hundreds or thousands of people who are — who have been tracked for a variant in a particular country and a much larger number than another country, you know, obviously the health and medical advisors assess that it would be helpful in protecting the American people to restrict travel from those countries where there is wider spread.”
Yamiched countered, “So, in other words, it’s the scientists that are saying that, it’s fair to say?”
Psaki responded, “The President made the travel () restrictions in place on the pure basis of the recommendation of his health and medical advisors.”