WHO chief says it's 'deeply concerning' that African countries are being 'penalized' with travel bans

The World Health Organization (WHO) chief on Wednesday called it “deeply concerning” that African countries are being “penalized” with travel bans after detecting and reporting the omicron variant.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thanked Botswana and South Africa on Wednesday for alerting authorities to the new variant of concern “so rapidly,” while criticizing how nations like the U.S. have responded with travel restrictions. 

“It is deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing,” he said in a press briefing, noting that travel bans alone will not stop the variant from spreading.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO chief added. 

Instead, Tedros said nations should take “rational, proportional" precautions to prevent the spread of omicron variant, including screening passengers before and after travel and using quarantine for international visitors. 

These actions could help “reduce or at least delay” the spread of the variant, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said, noting broad travel restrictions alone cannot be effective.

“You are going to miss cases,” Ryan said. “They’re going to come in your land borders. They’re going to come in through third and fourth airports. So the idea that you can put a hermetic seal on most countries is just frankly not possible.”

Ryan added that overarching travel bans have “economic and social consequences” as well as “inherent” contradictions as the virus does not spread based on someone’s residence or nationality.

“Our concern is that we apply public health principles, not political principles, to selecting measures that are used to control the spread of the disease, and those measures are targeted at reducing the transmission of the virus while presenting the least possible imposition on the individual’s rights to move,” he said. 

At the time of his speech, Tedros said at least 23 countries have reported cases of omicron, and “we expect that number to grow.”

Tedros’s comments came hours before the CDC confirmed its first case of the omicron strain in California.