Biden lifts South African travel restrictions amid omicron

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President Biden formally announced Tuesday that he was lifting travel restrictions imposed last month on eight southern African countries as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 — which prompted the policy imposition — causes record-high infections in parts of the US.

The restrictions were derided as racist in testy exchanges at recent White House press briefings, and Biden rescinded them much faster than he did a long-running ban on foreign citizens visiting the US from Western Europe, which finally ended last month.

“Having learned more about the Omicron variant in the past several weeks, the CDC now recommends lifting the travel restrictions,” Biden said in a statement.

He added: “The travel restrictions imposed by that proclamation are no longer necessary to protect the public health.”

The Omicron variant was discovered late last month by scientists in South Africa and quickly spread overseas, driving spikes in new infections despite widespread vaccination.

Empty airport in Cape Town South Africa
President Biden announced that the CDC no longer considers travel restrictions necessary against southern African countries as more has been learned about the Omicron variant.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

A record-breaking wave of cases has sent hospitalization rates up steeply in New York City. In Washington, DC, 9,200 people — roughly 1.4 percent of the capital city’s population — were recorded as testing positive for COVID-19 over the four-day Christmas weekend.

Biden’s decision to restrict travel from southern African countries came despite his 2020 criticism of then-President Donald Trump for imposing restrictions on travel from China and Europe, epicenters of the initial COVID-19 outbreak.

On the same day that Trump’s China travel ban was announced, Biden said, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia and fear mongering.”

President Biden
President Biden had imposed travel restrictions on southern African countries despite previously having called President Donald Trump “xenophobic” for imposing travel restrictions on China when COVID first hit.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In March 2020, one day after Trump banned travel from Europe as Italy and other areas experienced COVID-19 surges, Biden tweeted, “Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it. This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it.”

Some critics of Biden’s southern Africa travel restrictions said it provided a disincentive for countries to report new variants of COVID-19. Others noted that the White House allowed two days of unrestricted travel from the region after announcing the policy.

Biden’s now-rescinded restrictions barred foreign citizens from entering the US if they were in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe in the prior 14 days.

Biden swiftly repealed the Africa policy despite frustrating key US allies this year by keeping in place travel bans from most of Europe long after January, when Trump wanted to end them.

Foreign citizens who recently visited the 26-country Schengen Zone, the UK or Ireland were banned from the US for most of 2021 despite local infection rates generally being far lower than in the US and despite a higher percentage of residents of those areas getting vaccinated.

Empty airport
Critics of President Biden’s southern Africa travel ban said it would disincentivize countries from reporting new variants.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration last month ended most bans on travel from early COVID-19 hotspots, including Europe, and adopted a policy whereby foreign citizens who enter the US by plane must be vaccinated and test negative. But rapid tests of dubious accuracy are allowed and residents of poorer countries, many of them in Africa, were exempted from the vaccine requirement.

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