California Observer

Opinion: Travel Bans Make Reunions Tough for Families

Photo: Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa

Last month, Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa flew from Lusaka, Zambia—her home country—to Washington, D.C.

It was her first trip to the country in a year and a half. It was exciting for her to go home, especially when much had changed. Everyone was excited about the peaceful election of a new president, calling it “a new dawn.” And Jacqueline got to spend time with her mother. Jacqueline missed her cooking so much, her dry fish stew, and they got to chat together under the cool shade of the family’s avocado.

While it was hard to say goodbye to her mother, Jacqueline was excited to see her again in December. Plans to visit Jacqueline and her husband Brian in the States for the holidays and spend quality time with the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Maura-Anne, and one-year-old son, Liam, both of whom she hadn’t seen since May, were underway.

But with a new coronavirus variant of concern arising—omicron—their plans were put into limbo.

The variant was first detected in Botswana and South Africa, and as a result, travel bans were placed in countries in southern Africa.

The impact on Jacqueline’s family was immense.

She knows it may seem petty to gripe about having to put her mom’s visit on hold. But Jacqueline really wanted her children to see their kuku—“grandmother” in the siLozi language—for Christmas.

Zambia is not on the U.S. travel ban list, but her mother would need a connecting flight via the U.K., a major flight connection hub for many Zambians. 

And similar to what happened in France, countries that are travel hubs for Africans are banning (and unbanning) Zambia.

With such uncertainty, travel plans are near impossible. And Jacqueline’s family reunion seems like a far-fetched dream.

The bans are not rooted in science, Jacqueline says, which adds to her anger and frustration. Instead, the bans were based on insufficient information about omicron and infection rates in those countries.

In late November, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the bans are “completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against” the region.

At this stage in the pandemic, 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, the world must fight omicron by “enhancing surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting.”

Yet the bans persist.

The variant was found in the Netherlands one week before South Africa reported it, so Jacqueline finds it unfair to single out Southern Africa with travel restrictions.

According to WHO, nearly 40 countries have reported cases of omicron. It’s an everywhere problem that continues to spread despite border closures.

Jacqueline believes that world leaders should end the travel bans now and admit they have enforced these restrictions on prejudged decision-making.

Jacqueline writes in an article, “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, Jacqueline and her family anxiously wait to see what happens with the travel bans.

Jacqueline would give anything to see her children open presents or build a snowman with their kuku.

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