When the Omicron variant first came to light, panic-stricken world leaders had to make fast decisions to control the situation. Border control was one of the first issues to be acted upon. In the US, President Biden announced travel ban on travellers from 8 Southern African countries; South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, except for their citizens and PR. A number of other countries also imposed the same restriction, including Malaysia.
Earliest Reported Cases of the Omicron Variant
When the news broke in November, a growing number of Omicron cases have been reported in South Africa (77 from samples collected between 12-20 November 2021 from Gauteng province), Botswana (4), and Hong Kong (1 traveller from South Africa) as of 25 November; and Israel (1 returning from Malawi), Belgium (1 returning from Egypt) as of 26 November (publichealthontario.ca).
The earliest known cases are from southern Africa. The first identified samples were collected Nov. 9, from a 34-year-old man and a 23-year-old man in Johannesburg, according to the GISAID global database. On Nov. 11, five samples of the variant were collected in Botswana. While in Europe, the earliest Omicron variant sample was collected in the Netherlands on 19 Nov (washingtonpost.com).
Omicron in Malaysia
The Health Ministry of Malaysia is doing what they can and the hope is that the temporary travel restrictions can slow down the transmission. The index case of the Omicron variant in Malaysia (a fully vaccinated 19-year-old girl from South Africa, who is studying at a private university in Ipoh) arrived in Malaysia on 19 Nov.
She completed a 10-day home quarantine and was confirmed positive for the variant on 2 Dec. Her seven close contacts (a bus driver, a university staff and the girl’s three university friends and her two roommates) have tested negative, confirmed by Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah (nst.com.my on 3 Dec).
Is International Travel Ban Effective?
Experts caution, though, that omicron could have originated elsewhere and the southern African countries should not be punished for reporting the first identified cases. It is going to hurt their economies especially during the festive period at the end of the year where people are going for holidays. It will be too late to stop the spread of the variant anyway even with strict border controls. As of 8 Dec, the variant has spread further and has already been reported in 57 nations according to WHO.
Some of the evidence suggests that a travel ban may delay the arrival of an infectious disease in a country by days or weeks. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that a travel ban eliminates the risk of the disease crossing borders in the long term. On the other hand, the economic and social impacts on countries affected are profound (washington.edu). Instead of a international travel ban, we should focus on the things we know are effective— quarantine, testing, social distancing, masking, development and equitable distribution of vaccine, patient monitoring, investing in public health systems, etc.
Enforcement of Covid-19 SOPs in Different Countries
Residents in the West have more freedom to make their own decisions on Covid-19 safety measures. The governments provide information about the cases, safety guidelines and recommendations. It is up to the people to do the right thing to protect themselves and others from getting infected.
For example in the US, you do not need to wear a mask in outdoor settings in general. In areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, residents are advised to consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated (CDC).
In England, if you are fully vaccinated and if the result of the test you take after you arrive is negative, you can end your quarantine (gov.uk)
Asian countries in general implement more stringent regulations on masking, quarantine, and social distancing.
High Risk Travel Destinations
In Malaysia new protocol on 8 Dec, travelers from high-risk countries with reported spread of Omicron variant in the community; Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Norway, France, have to undergo mandatory quarantine and to be equipped with a wrist tracker. RT-PCR test is to be done 2 days before departure instead of 72 hours ( KKM Facebook). 14-day quarantine for travelers from the 8 South African countries, only citizens and long term pass holders are allowed in.
Proper restrictions are effective control measures, but how bad is it going to affect the economy, for example those who have purchased the Langkawi tour packages, tour agencies’ resources and staff, hotels, transport companies, attractions, shops, restaurants are going to be badly impacted if the quarantine-free travel rule is retracted in the last minute. How is it going to affect those who has made plans to travel urgently? Travel restrictions were announced to control transmission of variant of concern which was time critical. Amendments were made after taking into consideration the repercussions in a more inclusive manner. Nonetheless more detailed real-time SOPs on an official website would be really helpful.