Strict COVID-19 Travel Restrictions Against Southern Africa Are Unfair & Ineffective

For international students at Colgate, the past two years have been particularly challenging in terms of both the direct and indirect effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their ability to study and move freely within and outside the United States. We can still remember July 6, 2020, when the Trump administration, through the infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), brought over 900,000 international students enrolled in U.S. institutions into panic. A new directive indicated that all students enrolled in fully online programs during the Fall semester of 2021 would either have to find a new, in-person institution or leave the country, according to ICE. This directive received important backlash from institutions such as Harvard and MIT, both stating to have over 25% international students populations, and was eventually rescinded, according to NPR. Regardless, international students were left with the disappointing belief that their stay in the United States was not as certain as before – at least as the COVID-19 pandemic grew larger – and that they had to be prepared for any possible changes of plans.  

Now, things have changed since July of 2020. Not one but multiple vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed and eight billion doses have been administered worldwide, with higher income countries priding themselves off of having 75% of their populations vaccinated with at least one dose, according to Our World In Data. But only 6.5% of the population in low income countries has received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine, highlighting an issue that is crucial in completing our collective fight against the pandemic: the issue of granting a fair and equal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines throughout the globe. Attempts have been made to turn this scientific and logistic necessity into a reality, but what we have seen coming from western and industrial nations is disappointing and insufficient as much as the vaccine distribution mechanisms that they still trust and promote have not met expectations. COVAX, the global instrument for the delivery of vaccines to low and middle income countries, has delivered only 590 million doses, largely missing its target to deliver 1.8 billion doses by the end of 2021. Similarly, the European Union and the U.S. have only delivered around 360 million doses out of the 1.8 billion doses they promised to deliver before 2023, as reported by Newsweek

But how does all of this information connect to international students studying in the United States? When, in early November, lab technicians at the Lance Laboratories of Pretoria, South Africa, discovered an unusual strain of COVID-19, the global community was unaware that the United States would soon impose travel restrictions on most Southern African nations, aimed at the containment of the newly discovered Omicron variant. When looking through the directives announcing such restrictions, I was surprised to discover that the Nov. 29 Presidential Proclamation on Suspension of Entry of immigrants and non-immigrants from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe prohibited F-1 students – a.k.a. international students – from entering the country as well, excluding them from the list of exemptions. While this information is, in itself, concerning, as F-1 visa students had always been exempted from travel restrictions to the U.S during the pandemic, what’s even more preoccupying is the level of discrimination that African nations included in the Presidential Proclamation face in relation to other nations facing Omicron variant outbreaks, including my home country, Italy. As the Omicron variant is now confirmed to have spread to over 38 different countries, as confirmed by a WHO spokesperson to Al Jazeera, it is not clear how effective travel restrictions on Southern African nations are and why the Biden administration is yet to take action in either changing such a discriminatory protocol or in equalizing restrictions on all countries confirming cases of the variant. Until such restrictions are either extended or modified, the Biden administration will be the sole actor responsible for restricting and preventing the freedom of tens of thousands of people living in Southern Africa to study and work in the United States, staining its reputation both domestically and abroad.