in 2020, soon after Covid-19 outbreak hit the world, a number of countries ordered
immediate repatriation of their citizens from China. It was a mission to save
those caught up at a ‘deadly virus hotspot’. What might have been overlooked,
however, was the psychological consequences this would have on those evacuees.
For instance, many of those who were evacuated from Wuhan, the first Chinese city to detect the virus, were profiled in their countries upon return and are widely reported to have faced social stigma and discrimination for allegedly being ‘carriers’ of the contagion.
China was at the time doing everything it could to keep everyone within its borders safe. Some countries including Kenya objected evacuation of their citizens from China, and were vindicated as majority of those who stayed back in China returned home safely.
Soon, the coronavirus outbreak was also stoking another wave of anti-China sentiment in most parts of the world. China was being accused of allegedly ‘manufacturing’ the virus and her people were therefore ‘guilty of spreading the deadly virus.’ As expected, Chinese travelers abroad were on the receiving end as were millions others who endured online scorn.
Events of the last three years have for that reason shown that the consequences of being profiled, stigmatized and discriminated are hugely damaging compared to the potential health risk posed by the virus itself.
Yet new measures targeting Chinese travelers have emerged. In the latest development, the United States, for instance, will require travelers from the East Asian nation to test negative covid-19 upon arrival.
new rules set to take effect January 5, 2023, according to US authorities will
apply to passengers flying directly to the country from China, including Hong
Kong and Macau as well as those flying through major airports in South Korea
and Canada. The US cites a surge in covid cases in China for this move.
The move by US has also been replicated elsewhere. Japan and India have since announced similar measures citing uptick in cases in China. France, Italy, Spain and United Kingdom are the latest to join this list of countries requiring visitors from China to test negative for covid-19 before boarding flights.
Ironically, these restrictions are coming into force at a time China relaxed strict requirements for international travelers as it opens its doors to the world once again after a tough covid-19 period.
It is totally understandable to have covid tests at the airports, I believe even China will never object that. What should be of concern to all and sundry, however, is why only travelers arriving from China ought to be tested and not fellow passengers arriving from other countries. Given the worldwide spread of covid-19, it’s difficult to understand this move.
Natural justice dictates that all travelers should be subjected to similar protocols and procedures.
These countries attribute their decisions to a surge in covid cases in China. Latest figures, nevertheless, show the increase in infections is being registered in most countries, including in Europe and not only China, begging the question why the focus on China?
As a matter of fact, health experts who have had their say on this turn of events hold the view that restricting travelers from China will not do much to limit the number of covid cases.
These countries have also accused China of failure to provide information on possible existence of new covid-19 variants and that restrictions would prevent entry of new variants. Even on this, experts aver that if such variants exist, travel restrictions at this point in time are coming too late. Besides, a new variant can emerge from anywhere in the world and not just China and it might already have crossed to those countries as they plan to start screening passengers from China.
Addressing the decision by the UK government to institute restrictions to curb new variant, Prof Mark Woolhouse who is also an adviser to government on health notes there are currently “around four million reported cases per week worldwide” and far larger numbers that go unreported. He too wondered why authorities concentrated only on China.
It will be remembered that China came under heavy criticism a few weeks ago for implementing zero-covid policy. This was a campaign to ensure safety of populations. A review of the situation in China later showed weakening of the virus and Beijing made a decision to ease restrictions. Now a surge in covid infections is being witnessed, as China initially feared was going to happen, then there is a similar surge in condemnation and travel restrictions has kicked in.
Almost all countries returned to normalcy more than a year ago except China which has been pushing to get to the same level of regularity, and given its uniqueness, population considered, this was no mean task. Beijing, therefore, deserves support from the rest of the world, not inflamed sentiment and restrictions targeting travelers from China only.
Zero-covid, though it proved tough to realize, was clearly an effort to protect people’s life and their health. The current surge in infections and hospitalizations confirm that the efforts were bearing fruits albeit lockdown fatigue that had kicked in amongst segments of the population, and understandably so, given it’s been nearly three years of less or no movement at all.
It’s important to note that majority of the Chinese understood the veracity of the situation and that’s why they resolved to back government’s efforts to tackle the virus albeit with a lot of sacrifice.
During this period China has effectively responded to a number of virus waves and avoided widespread infections. This is why China has had the lowest rates of infection. Simply put, when the virus was still aggressive in China, authorities also acted aggressively.
Amid the latest developments, China has expressed hope that countries will follow a science-based approach and work together to ensure safe cross-border travel, keep global industrial and supply chains stable, and most importantly apply measures equally to people of all countries.
Looking at the latest approaches, many questions emerge. Will travel restrictions targeting travelers from China only work against covid? Past experience shows this may not happen.
Back in 2020 when the pandemic struck, the World Health Organization stated that it did not support travel restrictions noting that they were not an effective way of curb virus spread.
"Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time," the agency said in its February 29, 2020 travel advise.
This was true then, and it remains true now.
The BBC has also conducted a ‘Reality Check’ on whether such restrictions work. A number of experts who spoke to the station held the opinion that travel curbs do not yield much.
Professor Andrew Pollard of Oxford Vaccine Group said "the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic, hasn't stopped those viruses travelling around the world,"
The BBC Reality Check went on to note that “studies suggest that travel restrictions tend only to delay the spread of the virus spreading in a country, but cannot keep it out completely,”
British Medical Journal, in its reports also stated that international border restrictions could only delay the spread of the virus by a couple of months.
"We have learned during the pandemic that universal measures, applying to all travellers not just those from certain countries, are more effective than targeted measures, for example against Chinese travellers.” said one of the authors of the report Dr Karen Grepin from Hong Kong University.
Dr Karen believes the only type of restriction that has been shown to be effective is one that involves a lengthy quarantine period.
Numerous other research works on covid spread arrived at similar conclusions; that restrictions only worked at the beginning before countries started registering 10 or more covid-related cases and deaths and that quarantine for all travelers were more effective than travel bans.
The world right now is at a stage where economic recovery is priority even as efforts to contain the virus continue. These efforts require global solidarity and not ill feeling. All must pull together in one direction and focus on the enemy, covid-19.
Such restrictions ought to be relooked before the situation blows out of control. Who knows how many more countries will take the cue from those that have instituted these measures.
The best way out of this pandemic is especially for major countries to work together and engage constructively in finding and implementing solutions.
The world requires the commonality it exhibited over the last couple of years in the fight against the virus. With concerted efforts from all countries, victory over covid will arrive, and humanity will be free once again. There should be no room for discrimination in this regard.
Eric Biegon is a Multimedia Journalist with Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and the views expressed here are his own.