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'Travel apartheid' : U.N. chief slams global response to omicron variant

“We have the instruments to have safe travel,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid."
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As the world continued to grapple with how to respond to the new omicron variant Thursday, the sweeping travel bans imposed by many countries faced fresh criticism from global leaders.

The scrutiny over the Covid- 19 restrictions came as the United States moves to slightly tighten its own international travel rules, after the first omicron case was detected in California and as South Africa, where the variant was first reported last week, saw a worrying surge in cases.  

Dozens of countries, including the U.S., rushed to restrict travelers from southern Africa in the wake of the new variant's emergence last week.

On Wednesday, the United Nations chief likened the bans to "travel apartheid."

“We have the instruments to have safe travel,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, speaking to reporters in New York. “Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.” 

The bans that isolate any one country or region are “not only deeply unfair and punitive, they are ineffective,” he added.

His comments echoed earlier warnings from the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that blanket bans are “not evidence-based” or effective on their own.

It's "deeply concerning," Tedros said Tuesday, that southern African countries that first raised the alarm about the new variant are being "penalized by others for doing the right thing" — detecting, sequencing and reporting the variant rapidly.

The WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, reiterated Wednesday it was impossible to put "a hermetic seal" on countries by means of travel bans.

“There is also some inherent internal contradictions in these bans —we’ve seen these before, where you ban flights, except for your own citizens,” he said. “I mean, epidemiologically, I find it hard to understand the principle there. Is it that some passport holders will have the virus, and some won’t? Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you are legally resident?”

Leaders of southern African countries have also called the bans unfair, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa saying Sunday that the measures were “deeply disappointing.”

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On Thursday, Japan backtracked on a ban on new bookings for incoming international flights after public criticism.

The measure was announced by the country’s transport ministry Wednesday as an emergency precaution against omicron. 

But the step has caused “confusion among some people” during the holiday season, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, adding that the quick reversal of the policy took into consideration the needs of Japanese nationals who may want to travel home from abroad. 

Japan also moved to prohibit the entry of foreign nationals earlier this week.Hiro Komae / AP

There is little clarity about exactly how much danger omicron could pose, with the scientific community working to understand whether the variant is more transmissible, causes more severe illness or evades vaccines. 

It’s also not clear exactly where and when the new variant emerged. 

But new evidence suggests omicron could have been spreading earlier and wider than when it was first reported in South Africa on Nov. 24. Earlier this week, the Netherlands reported the variant was found in samples dating back to Nov. 19, and Nigeria found omicron in a traveler's sample retested from October.

The uncertainty around the timeline has cast further doubts on the wisdom of the rushed global response. 

“No one feels — I certainly don’t — that a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States,” the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told reporters in a White House briefing Wednesday. “But we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what’s going on.” 

On Thursday, the U.S. is expected to take a lighter approach to beefing up travel restrictions in the wake of omicron's spread.

President Joe Biden is set to announce that starting next week, all international travelers — regardless of nationality or vaccination status — will be required to test negative within a day of their departures to the U.S., but the move stops short of announcing any new bans on foreigners. Last week, the U.S. restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries.

“Testing people when they come in from overseas, I think that’s exactly right. I think it actually works much better than travel bans,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NBC's "TODAY" show Thursday. “People are going to be traveling back and forth, and testing them when they get to the airport, testing them once they arrive in the U.S., that’s going to be really important.” 

Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at the Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.
Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at the Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.Jae C. Hong / AP

Meanwhile, South Africa’s new cases of Covid nearly doubled in a day, the country's health officials reported Wednesday.

New confirmed cases rose to 8,561 from 4,373 a day earlier, according to government statistics. It wasn't clear if the surge could be attributed to omicron.

But the variant has been detected in five of South Africa’s nine provinces and accounted for 74 percent of the virus genomes sequenced in November, the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. 

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the WHO, told the agency.