UN chief blasts 'travel apartheid' as world responds to omicron variant

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres blasted what he called "travel apartheid" as the U.S. and other countries implement travel bans to stop the spread of the omicron variant.

Guterres told reporters in New York he was concerned with the roughly 56 nations that instituted travel bans just days after the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, Reuters reported. Guterres said the restrictions were "not only deeply concerning, but ineffective."

"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.

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After omicron was detected on Nov. 24, governments were quick to ban travel from certain countries — including the U.S., which barred foreign visitors from eight Southern African nations. Guterres said on Wednesday it was more effective to test travelers than outright ban them.

Omicron has now spread to the U.S. and about two dozen countries. The World Health Organization and national health agencies have still not determined whether the new variant is more transmissible or more deadly than other variants.

Guterres' criticism came just hours after the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized "blanket" travel bans, which he called "deeply concerning."

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” he said, urging countries to instead screen passengers and quarantine international visitors.

Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOmicron could be peaking in the US — but experts urge caution Sunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion A newspaper crosses an uncrossable line to 'punish' a class of Americans MORE, President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion The Fed has a clear mandate to mitigate climate risks Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE's chief medical advisor, told a reporter from Today News Africa on Wednesday that the travel bans were necessary — and hopefully temporary. 

"We wanted to see if we could buy time, temporarily, so I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country," Fauci said. 

Story updated at 11:15 a.m. on Dec. 2