New travel rules in Britain have sparked outrage in Africa, provoking allegations of racism and raising the spectre of deepening rifts between wealthy and poor countries as global travel begins to open up.
Britain on Friday announced a loosening of its restrictions for travellers from Canada and a number of other countries, but it shocked the African tourism industry by maintaining a ban on travellers from more than 20 African countries and many other countries in the developing world.
Kenya and Egypt were the only African countries removed from the “red list,” despite intense lobbying by African governments.
In effect, the ban makes British tourism almost impossible in those countries, while damaging other business and family links. The decision will prolong the devastation of the tourism industry in many African countries, where British tourists are traditionally a key market.
While the announcement has already triggered strong protests from South Africa and other countries, it was a separate British rule that caused the most anger. Britain said on Friday that it would deem travellers to be unvaccinated if they had not received their COVID-19 vaccines in a short list of approved countries, primarily in Europe and North America.
This rule applies even to those who were vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca shots – the same vaccines that are widely used in Britain – if they were vaccinated in unapproved countries, mainly in Africa, South America and elsewhere in the developing world.
Travellers who are deemed to be “unvaccinated” – even if they are immunized with Pfizer or AstraZeneca – would face tougher COVID-19 testing rules, along with a 10-day self-isolation period after arriving in Britain.
The rules have reinforced the growing fears that wealthy countries will prolong restrictions that discriminate against travellers from lower-income countries. This, in turn, would perpetuate the divisions caused by vaccine shortages that have left most poorer countries still largely unvaccinated today.
On social media on the weekend, many Africans said the British definition of vaccination, which excludes vaccines administered in most low-income countries, is irrational and racially discriminatory. “It is not rooted in science, so what is it based on?” asked Fatima Hassan, a South African human-rights lawyer and founder of the Health Justice Initiative, an independent organization.
“It is so racist,” she told The Globe and Mail. “This is shocking. It creates needless confusion about what is okay or not for the U.K.”
She said the World Health Organization should step in to intervene against the British rule, since it could fuel vaccine hesitancy by creating the perception that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines in low-income countries are inferior versions.
Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, joined the criticism of the rule. Regulatory authorities, she said, should accept all vaccines that have WHO approval. “We cannot have multiple ‘classes’ of vaccines for travel,” she said in a tweet on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the decision to keep many African countries on the British red list has led to frustration and fury.
“Thousands of families and business people in South Africa and the U.K. are shocked by this continued exclusion,” the government of South Africa said in a statement on Sunday.
The government said it was puzzled and disappointed by the decision. South African scientists said the country has fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than a number of other countries that were removed from the British red list.
In neighbouring Namibia, another country heavily dependent on tourism, there were similar protests. An industry organization, the Namibia Travel and Tourism Forum, wrote to British leaders saying the decision to keep Namibia on the red list was “ill-founded and unfair” and was done with “absolutely no justification or explanation.”
The decision will cause a surge of cancellations of tourism bookings in Namibia, it said.
Even before the announcement on Friday, the British travel restrictions have triggered concerns that they could affect attendance at a major international climate summit in Scotland in late October and early November.
The conference, known as COP26, is due to negotiate new global action on climate change. But the shortage of vaccines in low-income countries, combined with the British travel restrictions, would create serious obstacles for delegates from Africa, Asia and Latin America, according to a statement this month by a network of more than 1,500 climate-action groups.
“There has always been an inherent power imbalance within the UN climate talks, between rich nations and poorer nations, and this is now compounded by the health crisis,” said a statement by Tasneem Essop, executive director of the Climate Action Network.
“Our concern is that those countries most deeply affected by the climate crisis and those countries suffering from the artificial shortage of vaccines will be left out of the talks,” she said.
With a report by Paul Waldie in London
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