Last month, I flew from Lusaka, Zambia — my homeland — back to Washington, D.C., where I now work.
It was my first trip to the country in a year and a half. It was invigorating to go home. So much had changed. Everyone was excited about the peaceful election of a new president — people were calling it “a new dawn.” And I got to spend time with my mother. I missed her cooking so much, especially her dry fish stew, and we got to chat together under the cool shade of her avocado tree.
While it was hard saying goodbye to my mom, I was excited that I’d be seeing her again in December. She was planning to visit my husband Brian and I in the States for the holidays and spend quality time with our 3-year-old daughter, Maura-Anne, and one-year-old son, Liam, both of whom she hadn’t seen since May.
Little did I know that a new coronavirus variant of concern would arise — omicron — and that our plans would be put in limbo.
Since the variant was first detected in Botswana and South Africa, several nations have placed travel bans on countries in southern Africa in an effort to stem its spread.
Let me tell you about the impact on one family – my family.
I know it may seem petty to gripe about having to put my mom’s visit on hold. But I really want my children to see their kuku – “grandmother” in the siLozi language – for Christmas.
Now Zambia is not on the U.S. travel ban list. But my mom would need a connecting flight.
And the U.K. is a major flight connection hub for many Zambian travelers. Other countries that are travel hubs for Africans are banning (and unbanning) Zambia. That’s what happened in France.
With that kind of uncertainty, we can’t make travel plans. And now our family reunion seems like an impossible dream.
What makes me particularly angry and frustrated about the bans is that they are not rooted in science. They were created using insufficient information about omicron, including infection rates in those countries and the severity of the variant.
I agree with South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa when he said in late November that the bans are “completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against” the region.
At this stage in the pandemic, we know that border closures alone do not stop COVID’s spread. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said in his remarks at the WHO General Assembly last week — in which he also spoke out against the travel bans — we must fight omicron by “enhancing surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting.”
Yet the bans persist.
We now know the variant was found in the Netherlands one week before South Africa reported it — so it is unfair to single out and punish southern Africa with travel restrictions.
And according to WHO, there are now cases of omicron in nearly 40 countries. So the variant is not just a southern Africa problem, but an everywhere problem. And it continues to spread despite border closures.
World leaders should end the travel bans now and admit they have enforced these restrictions based on prejudged decision-making.
If we don’t take responsibility for each other, we will all continue to suffer. We must work together to tackle vaccine inequality, vaccine hesitancy and misinformation and rebuild economies trying to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Only then can we see a way forward.
Meanwhile, my family and I are anxiously waiting to see what happens with the travel bans.
What I’d give to see my children open presents or build a snowman with their kuku.
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa is a Zambian international regulatory attorney and an alumni of the Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship.