On December 1st, I wrote the shortest newsletter in the brief history of Inside Medicine. The headline asked “Do selective and frequently xenophobic travel bans work?” The main body contained just one word: no.
It was an impulsive posting, I admit. It also, in essence, reiterated what I’d already said in a previous newsletter published on November 26th, just 2 days after the Omicron variant was first reported and the same day the Biden Administration announced it would restrict travel to the United States from Southern Africa.
Since then, the Omicron variant has spread across the world like wildfire, proving yet again that travel bans rarely work, unless they are universal, extremely strict, and rigidly enforced. And even then, they rarely achieve the intended goal.
Nevertheless, the United States has not backed away from its porous travel ban that went into effect late last month, despite the fact that many public health experts have correctly decried the policy as “travel apartheid.” If anything the futility of this policy has only become more clear now that we have data pouring in from all corners of the globe. While some of this may be related to genetic sequencing ability, the fact is that the Omicron variant has now been detected in more US states than nations in Africa.
So let’s run the numbers on the Omicron variant and the travel ban, as of December 12, 2021.
•Number of confirmed cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant worldwide: over 7,100.
•Number of countries with confirmed cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant: At least 70.
•Number of countries the US travel ban applies to: 8.
•Number of countries in Southern Africa the travel ban applies to: 8.
•Number of countries in Europe with confirmed cases of Omicron: 27.
•Number of countries in Europe to which the US travel ban applies: 0.
•Number of days since the US travel ban was instituted by the Biden Administration: 16.
•Number of days since the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant was announced in the US: 12.
•Number of days the first Omicron-infected individual had already been on US soil when the case was announced: 10.
•Number of days after the policy banning travelers from Southern Africa went into effect that the individual arrived on US soil: negative 8.
•Number of days after the very existence of the Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization that the infected individual arrived on US soil: negative 2.
•Number of US states now reporting confirmed cases of the Omicron variant: 30.
•Number of days since Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden, said on the Sunday morning talk shows that the US would review its ban on travel from Southern Africa: 8 and counting.
•Number of seconds it would actually take for President Biden to reverse the travel ban: approximately 30. (Allowing for the extra time it takes to sign those official documents using a separate pen for each letter so that the POTUS can have more trinkets to give away to White House visitors as party favors).
•Number of words in New York Times guest essay by Dr. Saad Omer, the Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health describing why this highly selective ban not only achieves nothing, but actually hurts our fight against this and future variants: 809.
•Minimum number of times you should read Dr. Omer’s Times essay, immediately: 2. (Here’s that link again).
When I asked Dr. Omer via email this evening why he thought the US had not yet acted on its stated intent (per Dr. Fauci) to reconsider and revoke the travel ban, his theory was simple and direct. “Inertia?”
I agree. Which is a shame. Why is bad policy so easy to institute and so difficult to rescind?
We need not be perfect. But we must be as nimble as this virus has proven itself to be.
As I’ve said several times recently, new variants will be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Though it may be hard to imagine now, in the future there will actually be a time when very few people are dying of Covid-19 on a regular basis. But even then, the virus will likely be circulating at varying levels in one region or another, if not everywhere. This means new mutations will inevitably appear, some of which might be alarming to scientists and epidemiologists for various reasons. When that happens, health officials and experts will ask the public to “do the things” we know really do work in slowing down a virus, such as masking and physical distancing. But travel bans will rarely, if ever, be a successful strategy. They punish transparency from the nations considering reporting a new variant to the WHO and other nations and is all but guaranteed to be an example of locking the door after the intruder has already entered.
❓💡🗣️ What are your questions? Comments? Join the conversation below!
📬 Subscribe to Inside Medicine here and get updates from the frontline at least twice per week.