South African students decry omicron travel bans as a ‘knee-jerk reaction’

two students standing for a portrait
Gina Izerel (left), who studies game art and animation, and Itumeleng ‘Tumi’ Mosiah, who studies journalism, plan to visit their native South Africa in coming days. They are unsure if they will be allowed back in the United States because of omicron travel restrictions instituted by western and European authorities. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gina Izerel is counting the days until she heads home to South Africa. The third-year game art and animation major hasn’t seen her family in months, and she’s been planning the trip in December for the longest time. Then Izerel heard about the travel ban instituted by western and European governments when the omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged.

Worried about what the travel restrictions might mean for continuing her studies on the Boston campus, she read through the list of exemptions in the White House announcement, only to discover to her surprise that international students were not on the list.

“That’s when my heart dropped and I said ‘Well, this is real. Maybe I won’t be able to make it home,’” Izerel recalls from her Boston residence. “It’s really frustrating and upsetting and really devastating that this is happening, and it feels so specific to us. We’re the only students that are affected.”

Northeastern has notified students from the eight affected African countries that support is available through a variety of resources, including the WeCare program, which offers assistance when studies are interrupted.

“We encourage you to reach out for all of the help our Northeastern community can offer you,” the university says in a joint letter from Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs, and Mallik Sundharam, dean of the Office of Global Services.

The university “is closely following the situation in Southern Africa and grieving the COVID-19 pandemic surge. We know that many of you are facing deep grief and anxiety as you hear from your family and loved ones at home,” the letter adds.

Northeastern’s international safety hotline runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week should students encounter difficulties abroad. As more information about omicron becomes known, travel restrictions may change, possibly raising more obstacles.

“Bottom line, we work our hardest to support everyone, but sometimes the rules make it extremely difficult to depart or enter [the United States],” says Khushal Safi, associate director of public safety and security at Northeastern. “This is a good reminder to everyone that we are still in a pandemic.”

Even still, the feeling of being targeted is shared among southern African political leaders and the head of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who slammed the curbs as “travel apartheid.” 

“What is unacceptable is to have one part of the world condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that’s already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe,” Guterres added.

Come what may, Izerel plans to forge ahead with the trip to South Africa, having made the hard choice between not seeing her family or not being able to continue her studies.

“A lot of us students from South Africa and the surrounding countries that were banned were thinking that we have to sacrifice either our family time and our education in the U.S. I feel like we shouldn’t have to make that choice.

“We really don’t want to be stuck here feeling miserable about all our plans that were messed up, so I think a lot of people are willing to take that risk,” Izerel adds.

It’s the not knowing how long the travel restrictions will last that bothers Itumeleng “Tumi” Mosiah, a first-year journalism major who has a strong interest in human rights and humanitarian issues. Her flight to Johannesburg departs Boston in early December and she plans to be on that plane.

The spring semester starts in January “but I don’t know if it’ll be over by then,” Mosiah says of the U.S. travel lockdown on South Africa and seven other neighboring countries.

President Biden has called the move a “precautionary measure,” but the head of a trade group that represents the U.S. travel industry says the White House should revisit the decision quickly.

“We need to follow the science, and a travel ban is not the most effective way,” Roger Dow, CEO of the US Travel Association, said in a CNN interview.

Closing borders could cause long-lasting economic harm since South Africa relies on tourism dollars from the United States and Europe. “While we await scientific certainty surrounding this new variant, the impact to Brand South Africa and the deep tourism value chain has been devastating,” says South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu.

Both Mosiah and Izerel have been in touch with their Northeastern professors about the possibility of having to resort to online learning should they not be allowed to re-enter the United States. “A lot of them are open to Zoom,” Mosiah says.

Her mother told her that there are going to be inter-provincial travel restrictions once she arrives in South Africa. “We had the same thing last year when there was a huge lockdown in December because December is our summer, so people really start traveling and going out.” Mosiah says.

She agrees with restricting travel between provinces to be cautious, but doesn’t see the wisdom of curbs on African nations that haven’t yet reported an omicron infection.

“Banning travelers from sub-Saharan African countries is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction,” Mosiah says.

Adding to the frustration for Izerel is the blanket rejection of anyone from the region from entering the United States, even if they’ve been immunized against COVID-19. 

“Many of us are coming from institutions that are testing us regularly and requiring us to be vaccinated, so we are healthy and we are safe,” she says, “but to absolutely restrict us is so upsetting. Unfortunately, once a ban is in place, it’s not that easy for it to be lifted.”

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