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Opinion The U.K. just showed the world how not to craft covid-19 travel policies

Travelers at terminal 5 in London Heathrow Airport on July 27. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer, researcher and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

This week, the British government enacted and then rapidly changed its official covid-19 vaccination and travel policy for England, a confusing one that promised to create more problems than it solved. At first, visitors holding vaccination certificates from certain countries, primarily in Europe and North America, were exempt from mandatory 10-day quarantine on arrival. But the initial policy did not recognize certificates from many countries, including all African countries, much of Latin America and large Asian countries such as China and India. It also only recognizes four vaccines — by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — not the full list of vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. In countries where individuals are encouraged to mix vaccines, only doses from the above list will be recognized.

The policy, which went into effect Monday, was changed on Thursday to recognize vaccination certificates from more countries, following public outcry about its inherent injustice. But it is still worth analyzing because several other countries are on the cusp of making vaccination rather than testing the cornerstone of their covid-19 travel policies — an approach that could easily exacerbate global inequalities, especially if implemented like in England.

Let’s start with the policy for England, which was full of contradictions. Britain has pledged to donate at least 80 million vaccine doses to other countries, and by August, around 1 million of these doses had been received by the African countries Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Egypt. Yet visitors from these countries would not have been exempt from the mandatory quarantine in the initial policy. Meanwhile, some of the countries whose certificates were recognized from the start have been using vaccines that are not on the approved vaccine list.

The rationale for this initial policy was unclear. One argument could be that excluded systems have a higher risk of fraud. But the most systematic efforts at producing fraudulent vaccine records appear to be in Western countries. Earlier this year Israel-based researchers found that at least 1,200 vendors were selling fraudulent Britain and U.S. vaccine certificates on the dark web. Much of this is fueled by anti-vaccination sentiments, which are in turn fueled by specific political contexts in which systemic misinformation is driven by well-resourced, wealthy institutions.

In contrast, there have been no major anti-vaccination protests in Africa because there are no widespread domestic vaccine mandates, nor enough vaccines to justify them. Western countries have hoarded global vaccine supplies, and only 4.4 percent of eligible Africans have been vaccinated. This generally means that anyone who has received a vaccine in a country initially excluded from the list has done so by choice. Given that those looking to and can afford to travel internationally are a small minority of these people, there is little incentive for the kind of systemic fraud that could justify this two-tier system.

In fact, such a policy would counterproductively make the inequalities in vaccine distribution more dire. There are at least 12 billion doses of vaccine available by the end of the year, but most of these doses are being hoarded by wealthy countries like Britain, which has ordered 467 million doses of vaccine, with 210 million surplus doses to be delivered by the end of 2021, for a population of just over 67 million. People traveling to Britain from these countries are being pushed into taking extra doses of the vaccine to meet eligibility criteria. This is an unnecessary waste, particularly when countries like Britain are sustaining an artificial shortage of vaccines by stalling intellectual property waivers at the World Trade Organization that experts argue would be the quickest way to increase global production.

Approaches like this do not occur in a historical vacuum. They reflect the preoccupations of those who were shaping migration policy before the pandemic, and will compound and consolidate pre-existing injustices. In the past 30 years, the space for legal migration has contracted significantly. The absence of legal routes to migration has left hundreds of thousands vulnerable to smugglers and clandestine routes, and to cruel and arbitrary punishment by their various destination countries. The indefinite detention in inhospitable conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border, characterized by growing cruelty like that recently witnessed against Haitian refugees; Australia’s extra-territorial processing centers in the South Pacific; and the increasingly ignored anonymous deaths on the Mediterranean Sea are united by an unspoken but evident global injustice — racism.

This is why it is crucial to pay close attention to how immigration policy around the pandemic is taking shape: to ensure that we don’t normalize racist double standards that reflect unfounded paranoia rather than facts. The past three decades show that a momentum to criminalize and effectively stop mobility based on race. A policy premised on arbitrary exclusion is dangerously unnecessary when there is a simpler, more inclusive solution to anxieties about vaccination fraud — make vaccines so widely available and used around the world that it extinguishes interest in such fraud.

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