The United States has said there is no timetable for lifting travel restrictions on southern African countries to contain the spread of the new variant of COVID-19, while the United Nations has denounced the US response as “travel apartheid.”
The administration of US President Joe Biden on Monday implemented a ban to restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday President Biden was following the advice of public health experts who were concerned about large numbers of cases in the US.
"I wouldn't anticipate the lifting of restrictions before we know more about the variant," she said. "None of these are meant to be permanent, none of them are meant to be a punishment, they're all put in place to protect the American people to hopefully save more lives."
There have been at least two cases of the omicron variant identified in the United States over the past couple of days.
The first case was found in San Francisco, where the patient had returned from South Africa days before the omicron variant was discovered there.
The second case was found in Minnesota, but the patient only recently traveled to New York. The patient developed symptoms on November 22, a week before the travel ban took effect, proving that the strain was already in America.
The Biden administration said that the measure was taken out of an abundance of caution in light of the new variant.
The Biden administration’s decision sparked an immediate backlash from the international community and public health experts, who say it is ineffective and punitive against African countries.
UN chief slams US 'travel apartheid'
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called the US response “travel apartheid.”
He said that travel restrictions imposed over COVID-19 that isolate any one country or region as "not only deeply unfair and punitive - they are ineffective."
Guterres stated that the only way to reduce the risk of transmission while allowing for travel and economic engagement was to repeatedly test travelers, "together with other appropriate and truly effective measures,” according to Reuters.
"We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let's use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable," Guterres said.
Top US infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday he "felt really badly" about the restrictions, but claimed they are necessary to buy time to better understand the variant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the new COVID-19 variant found in South Africa, “Omicron,” a label applied when a particular strain is especially virulent, transmissible or able to defeat public health measures.