Biden says the US rethinking travel ban amid angry blowback in Africa

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 22 December 2021 20:47, updated on Thursday, 23 December 2021 10:31

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the country's fight against COVID-19, in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden says he will reconsider travel bans for Africa. December 21, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Joe Biden indicated this week that the US could soon end a weeks-old travel ban on African countries that has done next to nothing to stop the spread of the Omicron variant, while prompting an angry backlash from a continent that Washington has been eager to court.

The US imposed travel restrictions on eight southern African nations on 29 November after the new highly transmissible Covid-19 variant was first identified in South Africa. The other countries include Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Pressed at a press conference on Tuesday to explain the rationale behind keeping the ban in place yet Omicron accounts for almost three-quarters of new infections in the US, Biden said he’s “considering reversing” it and is “going to talk with my team in the next couple of days.”

“Look, remember why I said we put the travel ban on. It’s to see how much time we had before it hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what’s happening in other countries,” Biden said. “But we’re past that now […] so it’s something that is being raised with me by the [doctors], and I’ll have an answer for that soon.”

Africa lobbies against ‘apartheid’

The remarks follow blowback from African and other world leaders.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was one of the first to denounce the ban as “travel apartheid” on 1 December, two days after it was put in place. The phrase has been picked up by multiple African officials since then.

The act of restricting travel to and from Southern Africa feeds into narratives that stigmatise Africa […], especially given the widespread prevalence [of the Omicron variant] in other regions and countries around the world where no similar travel bans have been imposed.

“We have the instruments to have safe travel,” he told reporters in New York . “Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.”

That same day, a group of ambassadors to Washington, DC from the 16-member Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) issued a joint statement calling for an “immediate” end to the harmful and stigmatising ban.

“We … call on our host country, the United States of America, to immediately lift the imposition of travel bans for people from the Southern Africa region,” they said. “The act of restricting travel to and from Southern Africa feeds into narratives that stigmatise Africa […], especially given the widespread prevalence [of the Omicron variant] in other regions and countries around the world where no similar travel bans have been imposed.”

Peak travel season

The ambassadors noted that the ban is particularly harmful coming at the start of the peak travel season in the southern hemisphere, just as the sector was beginning to recover from the initial Covid-19 hit.

“Even worse,” they said, “the pandemic has separated families, with people unable to return to their families in the United States.”

I certainly expected something like that from those who called us shithole countries. I didn’t expect it from our friends today.

Africa’s top trade official hammered home the point during his first official visit to Washington last week during which he warned that the ban would set back rising African participation in global supply chains. Denouncing what he called “uninformed, ignorant and quite frankly astoundingly stupid stereotypes about the African continent”, African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretary General Wamkele Mene said he almost stayed in Ghana in “protest” of the ban.

“I certainly expected something like that from those who called us shithole countries. I didn’t expect it from our friends today,” he said at a Wilson Centre event attended by White House Senior Director for Africa Dana Banks and other US officials.

Damage done

Mene’s criticism hit home for an administration that has prided itself in adopting a more respectful approach than President Donald Trump in its quest to compete with China and Russia on the continent.

Last month’s visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken “made a lot of sense [given] the rhetoric of the US, with the Biden administration saying it has to really pay attention to Africa and it’s not going to shy away from competing with China with real alternatives,” says Lina Benabdallah, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University who tracks US-Chinese competition in Africa.

“But at the same time, there’s a huge problem with what the US says and what the US does,” she says. “When this new variant happened, the first thing [the US does] is to shut its borders and put a travel ban on a number of Southern African countries […] so that just leaves us with the question of, what are the intentions here? Because if there was as much care about the relationship with African countries, the travel ban certainly doesn’t help the people there.”

Right now, many Africans question the West’s appreciation of the dignity and value of African lives. It will take more than speeches, visits, and foreign assistance to change their minds.

Meanwhile, China ‘stole the show’ with President Xi Jinping’s promise at last month’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to provide Africa with an extra 1 billion vaccine doses over the next three years, on top of the 200 million it has already supplied. The Biden administration has also ramped up its vaccine diplomacy and announced this month that it is sending an extra 9 million doses to the continent, bringing the total to date to 100 million.

Former US officials have also criticised the ban as counterproductive.

“If those crafting policy in Washington want to work closely with African states to tackle difficult global issues and push back on rising authoritarianism, they will need to reckon with the reality of this African anger,” Michelle Gavin, a former ambassador to Botswana and US representative at the SADC, said in a blog post a day after the ban went into effect. “Soaring rhetoric about partnerships and mutual respect falls flat when Africans perceive that they have been treated as afterthoughts in vaccine distribution efforts – and then ostracised as the virus inevitably mutates. Right now, many Africans question the West’s appreciation of the dignity and value of African lives. It will take more than speeches, visits, and foreign assistance to change their minds.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options