Last week, the Biden administration announced that it was in the process of opening up America's borders. For the past year, international families have been kept apart on the basis of policies which seem to have only the slightest connection to public health. But the border opening will come with a catch: To travel to the United States, international travelers must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The policy will be a de facto ban on travel from the developing world in general, and from Africa in particular.
In the U.S., the last few months have been spent trying to coax, cajole, and coerce the most reluctant among us to get vaccinated. But the situation is very different in many parts of the world. As of mid-July, only about 1 percent of Africans had been vaccinated. This isn't because the other 99 percent have been offered vaccines and chosen not to get them. The shots simply aren't available. It's possible that shots won't be available to the average citizen of an African country for a long time to come.
It's no real tragedy, perhaps, if someone's trip to Disneyland ends up getting canceled because he doesn't have access to a vaccine. But it is a tragedy to cut the majority of a continent off from cultural and economic exchange with the rest of the world. Last year sent Africa spiraling into its first recession in 25 years, with growth plummeting to -3.3 percent. The price of food became dangerously high for a continent where food insecurity has long been endemic. American imports of African goods dropped by a little over 20 percent last year—no small thing, given that the U.S. has historically been sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest trading partner outside the continent.
The border closures and economic shutdowns have been devastating to many African countries in a way that the virus itself has not yet been. In a place where many were barely making ends meet, 29 million people slid into extreme poverty over the course of last year.
The Biden administration's vaccine requirement for international travel threatens to sever a strong and growing relationship between the U.S. and Africa. Over the past decade, American imports from Ghana have grown by nearly 600 percent. Other countries demonstrate an even starker pattern of growth—imports from Senegal, for instance, have risen 1,800 percent in the last ten years. It might only take a year or two for vaccines to become widely available in Africa, but a year or two is long enough to damage the enterprises that have been responsible for this enormous economic growth.
All of this has taken place on a continent with the world's lowest rate of coronavirus deaths per capita.
It's false to say that the majority of those who will be locked out by the vaccine requirement weren't going to be able to afford to travel anyway. Many African countries have a large and growing middle class. Just like many people around the globe, members of that group want to see the world and experience new cultures. About 41,000 international students from sub-Saharan Africa were studying in the U.S. during the 2019–20 school year, and a little over 2 million Africans have chosen to make the U.S. their permanent home. If an African woman living in the U.S. wants to invite family members still living in Africa to come visit her, she might now be waiting for years before they are able to meet vaccine requirements.
Many Americans and Europeans will be happy to see trans-Atlantic travel start moving again, even if it means that the African continent will be locked out. But this is in no one's long-term interest.
If President Joe Biden chooses to enforce a vaccine mandate on all international travelers, it will likely encourage foreign governments to impose vaccine requirements on incoming Americans. Many Americans have family and friends outside the country. If you need to travel overseas to see your dying parent, and you need to get a vaccine to travel overseas, the vaccine will no longer be, in any meaningful sense, voluntary.
The stakes of vaccine mandates are high. The government should think twice before imposing restrictions that will effectively ban most people traveling from a continent that is already struggling. Everyone is frustrated by the interminable travel restrictions, which in some cases seem to have little to do with public health. But this attempt to get things back to "normal" will only make things worse. History tells us that once this policy is rolled out, it may be extremely hard to undo. The U.S. only rescinded its HIV entry restrictions in 2009, long after the disease had been circulating in the country and officials realized how it spreads.
If we accept international vaccine requirements, we should expect them to linger for decades. Free travel as we knew it will be a thing of the past—and those who can't access vaccines will be hurt the most.