Omicron Brings Another Round of Pointless Travel Restrictions
We’re long past the point in the COVID-19 pandemic when politicians are doing much more in response to viral scares than engage in rituals to soothe a fearful public and enhance their own power. With the new omicron variant spreading across the world, travel restrictions seem to be the response of choice because they’re politically popular. Never mind that closing borders is ineffective at anything other than further burdening already hobbled families and economies. The actual danger posed by omicron remains uncertain, but the policy response is as pointless as it was preordained.
South Africa’s Health Ministry announced the discovery of the at-the-time-unnamed B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19 on November 25. What that means is still unclear and probably will remain so until more cases are found and studied. “There is preliminary evidence suggesting that Omicron may have potential immune escape and/or possibly higher transmissibility,” according to the World Health Organization, while some South African doctors report “very mild symptoms” including fatigue and body aches among their mostly young patients. Nevertheless, given the dearth of information, people did what they do best: They lost their shit.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) promptly declared a state of emergency granting her extraordinary power. More worryingly, a world already suffering severe disruptions started closing its borders in irrational ways. Following in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, the U.S. banned travelers from South Africa and seven neighboring countries, even though omicron was already in the Netherlands and elsewhere well before the variant was revealed to the world. In fact, the new variant was well-established in the countries announcing travel restrictions, including the U.S.
“The new case demonstrates that there is at least some local transmission of the Omicron variant and that it had arrived in the U.S. before the Biden administration imposed travel restrictions on Botswana and South Africa — where early cases of the variant were detected — and six neighboring countries,” Stat reported of a case found in Minnesota.
Official reaction seemed crafted more to further separate families and impoverish an already troubled world than to address a bug that was already loose. Health experts make exactly that point.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the World Health Organization’s Africa office warned as travel bans proliferated. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based.”
The warning that restrictions on movement carry their own costs and aren’t particularly effective isn’t new; health experts said the same thing years before COVID-19 appeared when they considered ways of slowing the spread of new varieties of flu.
“The results of ou
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