US to lift COVID travel restrictions on Southern African nations

Marwan Bishara

The United States will lift restrictions on travellers from Southern African nations, imposed last month amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a Biden administration official has announced.

In a tweet on Friday, the White House’s assistant press secretary, Kevin Munoz, said the curbs would be lifted on December 31, in line with a recommendation from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, [especially] boosted,” Munoz wrote.

The US was among several countries to impose travel restrictions on countries in Southern Africa after scientists in South Africa first identified Omicron on November 24. The World Health Organization (WHO) then dubbed the strain a “variant of concern” and warned it posed a “very high risk”.

But the WHO and other global health experts criticised the travel bans, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying on December 1 that restrictions that isolated any one country or region were “not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective”.

“With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective,” Guterres said at a news conference at that time, calling instead for increased testing for travellers.

The US ban applied to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

A senior White House official added that with Omicron present across the US and globally, international travellers from the eight affected countries would not have a significant effect on US cases.

“During the travel pause President Biden reduced the time for pre-departure testing to one day opposed to three days … travellers from these eight countries will be subject to these same strict protocols,” the official said.

The CDC said earlier this week that Omicron has become the dominant coronavirus strain in the US, accounting for 73 percent of new infections.

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