The Politics of Travel Bans

The Politics of Travel Bans

I am not a health expert, nor am I especially knowledgeable about COVID 19, but I’m pretty sure I’m not infected by the virus because I still have my sense of smell – and I smell a rat. 

Canada’s decision to impose a travel ban on 10 African countries after South Africa discovered the new Omicron variant does not stand up to reason or scrutiny. Why not impose the same restrictions on the numerous European countries where the virus has also been detected? In the absence of any convincing explanation from the government’s health experts, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the reaction is based on the assumption that African countries are somehow more incapable and unable to manage COVID 19 than their European counterparts. 

The government’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam admitted as much, saying that the three countries recently added (Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt) did not report the new variant before other countries. Instead, they were slammed with the travel ban because of ‘their ability to detect and respond to cases. Those countries also have very low vaccination rates.’ Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos added that the three African countries have difficulty measuring what is happening within their borders.  

As I said, I’m not a health expert. But I do know a thing or two about Africa and the perceptions of the continent in international relations.  Even with the most generous of interpretations, the imposition of travel bans on African countries alone echoes familiar ‘heart of darkness’ narratives, or as the President of Malawi and Chairperson of the Southern African Development Community, Lazarus Chakwera thundered, of ‘Afrophobia’. 

Let’s recall that the fact that South African and Botswanan scientists were the first to isolate and identify the new variant does not mean that it originated on the continent or that it is particularly rampant in Africa. Instead, it testifies to the quality of their scientific processes, their commitment to global accountability and multilateral cooperation. Many countries, including Canada, have congratulated South Africa on its scientific success.  In a phone call to President Cyril Ramaphosa shortly after closing the UK borders to South Africans, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing and leadership in transparently sharing scientific data.’  But warm words are cold comfort when your citizens can no longer travel, and your tourism industry nosedives just before the Christmas high season, and you (unlike, say, Belgium or the US, where the Omicron variant has also been detected) are singled out for special exclusion.  

No wonder then that many, including President Ramaphosa, think that the continent is being unfairly punished for its honesty and its scientific success.  In the President’s words, the travel ‘restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.’  The World Health Organization agrees, as does the UN Secretary-General. ‘The people of Africa’, António Guterres argues,  ‘cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.’ Many Canadian experts also agree, questioning both the effectiveness and the fairness of the travel bans.  

 In the face of fear and uncertainty, governments need to be seen to be acting – to be ‘doing something’, even if the actions are of questionable value.  It seems Africa has fallen victim to this performance of competence…

Again, I’m no health expert, but you don’t have to be one to see that COVID times are prime performance times.  In the face of fear and uncertainty, governments need to be seen to be acting – to be ‘doing something’, even if the actions are of questionable value.  It seems Africa has fallen victim to this performance of competence; the costs to the government of Canada of imposing a travel ban on African countries is low compared to slapping similar restrictions on European countries. Never mind the effectiveness – at least the government is perceived to be doing something. 

Of course, Canada is not alone in acting out this performance. Many countries, including the UK, the US, Japan, as well as the EU, have reacted in the same way. That doesn’t make it right. When the African countries of Angola, Rwanda, and Mauritius followed the lead of Western countries and closed their borders to South Africans, President Ramaphosa expressed concern that they were behaving like the continent’s former colonizers.  And that’s precisely it.  Canada should do better than acting in the heavy-handed, top-down manner of a former coloniser, and instead engage the continent as an equal partner in international affairs.   

As I said, I’m not a health expert, but you don’t have to be one to recognize that the unfair and discriminatory use of travel bans is seriously damaging to Canada-Africa relations. South Africa and Botswana’s rapid identification of the Omicron variant has shown that the world needs Africa in the effort to control the pandemic. Punishing them under the cover of protecting Canadians is not the way forward.   

Main image: South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa (Flickr: GovernmentZA CC BY-ND 2.0)

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