What if countries stopped reporting variants of concern when found, over fears for the economic and social implications?

Waking up today, it’s hard to miss concerns over a new variant. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, right? Caution is no doubt important here, particularly with such significant shifts in behavior, and make up. That’s not the issue.

Countries around the globe immediately took measures to halt flights, impose fresh bans and do just about anything to stop the movement of people from at least 6 areas of South Africa.

There’s no question that may prove crucially important, but there’s another side to the coin, which is far too overlooked: we should really be thanking South Africa. Their best in class genomic sequencing and transparency will now save lives, but at the cost of their vital tourism recovery. Likely, for far longer than necessary.

If we want countries to continue being transparent and share variants of concern, we must actively incentivize honesty and data sharing, particularly if they are cut off from the rest of the world, however briefly.

The Health Problems Travel Bans May Bring

From seaside escapes to game lodges deep in the bush, South African tourism is a vital element of the economy. And rightly so — it’s one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

Just as things were beginning to pick up ahead of the booming summer season – yes, it’s about to be summer there – the ‘Nu’ variant is closing all doors and quashing any hopes of full occupancy at hotels or flights full of people to help recoup two years of losses.

That’s happening because South Africa took an honorable, world leading approach to the virus and sequencing its many changes, and let the world know as soon as humanly possible.

Businesses will now be worse off than before, as refunds are dished out and future interest wanes. Governments often fail to account for the significant lag between a change in their policies and actual change in travel behavior.

Even if all concerns were dropped tomorrow, it would be months before confidence would be regained. Overnight bans may indeed be the right move, but if support and encouragement for the “whistleblower” style action doesn’t come with the bans, other countries which rely equally, or more so on tourism may not be as transparent.

They may just pretend they didn’t notice a variant, so as to avoid being the “the place” to avoid.

In other words, if tourism dependent countries are afraid of the economic and social blowback of letting the world know about variants of concern, they might not let us know, and then we’ll all be really screwed.

The issue of overnight travel bans and flight suspensions is above the pay grade of 99% of people reading this, myself included, but the logic in encouraging countries to continue to come forward with concerns, and supporting them dynamically during these challenges makes 100% sense.

Whether it’s other countries with strong sequencing and study capacities immediately jumping in to help get the answers we all want today, like “does this ‘Nu’ variant break through vaccines”, or sending medical and economic support to countries which come forward, much needs to be done to encourage continued real time transparency.

Helping the world uncover new variants and save lives shouldn’t automatically mean economic ruin and lasting fear around the region.

I remember the feeling of being in the UK when the “UK variant” came out, and how unfair it felt with the stigmas, dogma and isolation that came from the discovery. It was already everywhere, and if not for the United Kingdom also having fantastic genomic sequencing like South Africa, much of the world wouldn’t have received warning.

South Africa wakes up today with nothing but sadness, as a new variant sparks fresh fear and inbound tourism slows to a halt. Yet, the robust scientific community in the country are heroes to the rest of the world.

If we’re ever going to get out of this, economic, healthcare and resource incentives must be introduced to countries discovering new variants of concern, otherwise they may stop being reported and the next true worry may only be discovered “too late”.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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24 Comments

  1. This is a key part of our response to COVID. Governments have to prioritise their own citizens’ safety over the general well-being of the world at large. 99 times out of 100 that is the right approach and, in terms of their chances of re-election, it’s 100% the right approach. Doing the “right thing” is simply not an option until the home is secured. In order to change this dynamic, you would need a global and benevolent dictatorship and pigs will fly before that happens.

    On the question of whether this particular approach is correct, we’ll see. The advantage of banning travel from southern Africa is that the ban buys time to find out more about the particular variant. Does it resist vaccines, is it more dangerous, can we re-formulate vaccines and anti-virals? Also, it’s right to inform people about to travel there that they may be at greater risk than they would otherwise realise.

    Of course, the logic is that you should ban all travel from any country which hasn’t itself banned travel from southern Africa until these questions are answered. And then the learning from the last two years is that you are not going to prevent the spread, only slow it down.

    Finally, the cynic will say that honest countries will always be honest and dishonest countries will always be dishonest, so they won’t adapt their behaviour because of these issues.

    1. But I’m not saying bans shouldn’t be in place. I’m saying that’s for the world “leaders” currently in power to decide. What I’m saying is that if these measures are deployed, so too should be a deployment of help, be it increased vaccine access, debt negotiations, wider scientific input from the global health community or otherwise. Currently, coming forward with a new variant is just a jail sentence for that country without any help or recourse.

    2. A great article!
      As a restaurant owner in Franschhoek, a tourist hub here in SA – we are devastated by the effects of this new travel ban, waking up this morning to the U.K. ban, and knowing that so many would follow suit. It’s devastating for our town, which is almost fully vaccinated (we’ve all pushed this to allow our tourists to have confidence in us) it’s devastating for our employees. We get no government assistance during lockdown, and certainly non for the fact we suddenly don’t have foreign tourism. So whilst our govt are great at finding the variants (less so at finding the Gupta’s or corruption!) they won’t follow through on finding money to help support our economy. The impact this has on our local community is truly heart breaking.

      1. I promise you this, as soon as the bans are reversed, I’ll be among the first through the doors and I promise to come to your restaurant. Please feel free to email me details. I’m practical in many parts of life, but I’ll spend big on South African food and wine always, particularly in Franschhoek! Sending all the best.

      2. Becki
        I’m a UK tourist currently in Cape Town still enjoying my holiday. I’m in Franschhoeck later next week for a few nights. Let me know where your restaurant is and I’ll come visit 🙂
        Andrew

          1. Thanks so much for your responses! We’d love your support, and hope to have our tourists back very soon!
            Our restaurant is Bovine, bang in the middle of the main road in Franschhoek, opposite the town hall.

      3. It’s so sad. We have now had to postpone our trip to South Africa for the 5th time.
        I had hotels, game reserves and restaurants booked in the Western Cape and it breaks my heart to have to let all these people down yet again. Now re-booked for November which means it will be almost 3 years since we were last able to visit.

    1. I’d like to believe that to be true, but every data point I’ve seen, heard (firsthand from government & tourism officials in various countries) or read states otherwise. If you have links to share, please do. I’m always all for learning and education.

  2. I agree, Gilbert, and your suggestion of increased vaccine/treatment supplies is perfect. I’m struck by this happening as I’ve had a trip to Botswana on hold for a while now, with exactly this fear. There are travelers out on safari who will come out to a changed world, with extreme difficulties finding their ways home.

  3. It is very noble not to impose travel bans. However no Nation runs out help other Nations when it is struck. Remember USA has the most casualties, nightly news stations showed people fighting for oxygen in India ( a country of 1.2 Billion). Have we forgotten refrigerated trailers as make shift morgues ? Each has to decide what is best for their countries. This is not a world where share & share alike works !

    1. Ask your local epidemiologist how effective travel bans are?

      Here’s a recent highlight from Infectious Diseas MD, Amesh Adaja…
      “If the Belgian Omicron case had no contact or link with anyone from S.Africa or neighboring countries it suggests, which is almost always the case with respiratory viruses, that it escaped from where it originated even before noticed. Travel bans don’t make sense.”

      Or, the legendary Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Former head of the FDA, who sits on the boards of Pfizer, and Illumina, among others.
      “Good world is more organized; taking new variant seriously, with coordinated effort to investigate. It’s counterproductive in short and long run, however, to impose harsh travel restrictions on affected countries; hurting current containment efforts, discouraging future sharing.”

      “There’s too much we don’t know to impose economically, socially ruinous policies on SA and other nations. Ready, fire, aim is not prudent public health policy. Vaccine, testing requirements for incoming travelers could be prudent. Outright travel bans can hurt more than help.”

  4. Good article. Also devastating for UK residents stranded in SA who (if they find any flights back) have to pay ridiculous amount for hotel quarantine. In EU or US you will isolate but unlike in the UK you are trusted to do that on your own and without bankrupting you.

  5. I’m personally devastated at the travel bans as I send veterinary students to S Africa to work with Wildlife vets there and for 18 months we’ve had no-one travel. However, the only thing I would say is that S Africa needs to do something about the small numbers of people vaccinated there. I’ve had 5 friends die from Covid in S Africa, most of my friends there believe in the conspiracy theories coming from USA and one of my friends who is a nurse and gives the vaccinations is constantly asked about the “chip in the vaccine that must be tracing them”. Considering that anyone can be tracked by their mobile phone, it’s a ridiculous question and again, a conspiracy theory. I hope that these travel bans don’t last too long and we can get back to travelling to this amazing country.

  6. Good point about the stigma. I hadn’t realized that until you mentioned it clearly. I hope that doesn’t happen here as they are certainly honorable at helping the world through this.

    Regarding travel bans – had actual real effective halting of ALL travel been put in place early on, the spread would have been contained and could have been dealt with. It’s the continued gatherings and flights between all nations that made the spread around the world. A couple of weeks of complete closure is likely all it would have taken. But unfortunately people did not do the right thing and airlines were happy to keep moving people between infected zones. It’s not that difficult to comprehend. The lockdowns were not followed, nor were most flights stopped. We suffered the economic losses from a ‘shutdown’ when there was not a real shutdown and we are no further along with clearing this out of the air. So yes, anything to actually attempt to stop more spread is a good idea.

    To your point, the global health community should definitely be giving lots of support to this excellent group of professionals doing their part to end this crisis. I do hope they get the credit they rightfully deserve.

  7. Stay home and crush the spread, so you can have a COVID FREE lifestyle as we have in Western Australia. Just stay home!

    1. No, I have no desire to live in a prison state like WA, being in the eastern states has been bad enough without McGowan’s draconian policies ruining everyone’s lives. Families have been torn apart by these bullsh1t policies.

  8. Just had to cancel my trip to Lisbon…I am not happy…The virus will continue to mutate into variants. It is endemic. Why people will not understand that and move on with life is beyond me. The vaccines don’t work…and people are filling thier veins with an experimental vaccine that changes your DNA. How many boosters will you shoot in your veins? There is so much distrust created by tyrannical world leaders, the lying media and big
    tech censorship and it continues and continues. If you are not seriously questioning what is wrong with this picture I feel fo you. Lying Fauci in the US continues to hide his role in creating this virus. What are narcissist he is…if you question him he says you are killing people…typical progressive… The world’s economy is being transformed by the elites and the plebs are paying the price.

    1. Ffs vaccines do not alter your DNA. And they’re not injected into veins. Personally, I’ll take ten shots a day if it means I can travel and have some sort of normal.

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