An African reporter from Angola Hariana Veras on Friday pressed White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki to explain one more time why African countries with no cases of the Omicron variant have continued to remain under a travel ban President Joseph R. Biden Jr. imposed on November 26, citing the need to protect the American people, while countries in Europe and elsewhere with the variant have not been banned.
President Biden on November 26 issued a proclamation restricting travel from the southern African nations of South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Namibia over COVID-19 variant Omicron.
However, six of those nations – Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Namibia – had not reported any case of the new variant at the time of the ban.
As of Friday, none of those countries had detected the new variant, a week after Biden’s travel restrictions were first announced, according to the World Health Organization, which told Today News Africa that the five countries reporting the Omicron variant in Africa were Botswana, South Africa, Reunion, Ghana and Nigeria.
At a White House press briefing on Friday, reporter Veras asked Psaki whether there were other reasons for a ban that has specifically targeted southern African nations.
“My question is about the travel restrictions, and, right now, the African people are still very concerned about these restrictions. Because of that, there is a little chaos in the continent because many countries are closing their borders and people are not traveling as usual. And many people in Africa still have problem to really understand the real reasons behind those travel restrictions, so — and why it’s still in place,” Veras began by asking Psaki.
She continued, “You have said in the past that there is no political reasons behind this decision. And the President and you yourself have mentioned that this is to protect the American people and it’s for the safety of the American people. But if this was really about the safety of the American people, why some countries in Europe and even Canada that has the variant are not included on this travel restriction list? And even African countries that (don’t) have the variant are on the list.
“So, how do you explain to the African people who are watching you right now that there is no political reasons behind, even though it looks like there is?”
“So, I would say directly to the people in Africa that these restrictions were announced a week ago, on the recommendation of our health and medical experts, because what we saw and what we have continued to see is that, in South Africa, the variant and the spread of the variant led to hundreds and thousands of cases. And I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but now it’s definitely far into the thousands of cases,” Psaki said.
She added, “We also put the — the restrictions were recommended by our health and medical experts for neighboring countries. These steps were taken in order to slow the spread of the variant and to give our medical experts here more time to assess this variant and more time to assess what we needed to do to protect people in the United States. At the same time, we have been donating not only vaccines, but know-how and expertise to South Africa, to neighboring countries. And we’ve been in touch with officials there on a daily basis as we help to — work to address this variant and this virus. And we are assessing, on a daily basis, what is needed, whether it’s adding additional restrictions or removing restrictions. So that’s what I would say.”
But the reporter pushed back, asking Psaki whether President Biden who had defended South African people from the apartheid had changed his mind towards the Africans.
“We have seen President Biden in the past strongly defend the South African people from the apartheid regime when he was in Congress. And not only that, even normally, he used to advocate for the rights of the African people. (Has) the mind of President Biden (changed) over the time towards the Africans?,” Veras asked.
“Absolutely not,” Psaki responded. “What we’re trying to do here is work in partnership to address a variant and address a virus. And we are in touch on a daily basis with leaders there, with health officials there about everything we can do to be a partner in that effort. At the same time, the President needs to take steps to err on the side of protecting the American people from the spread of a variant we knew little about and we’re learning more about on a daily basis.”
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.