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Do COVID-19 travel bans work?

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Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey.

A rash of travel bans barring travelers from eight southern African countries enacted in an effort to slow the new omicron COVID-19 variant from spreading have ignited fresh debate about the efficacy of those restrictions. Meanwhile, critics contend that the restrictions stigmatize these nations and further hobble a travel economy that’s been weakened by the prolonged pandemic. Wendy Parmet, a Northeastern law professor who focuses on the intersection of health policy and law, says the travel bans are little more than “public health theater.”

“It’s the same problem that has afflicted every travel ban that has been put in place since the end of January 2020: It’s by nationality, it’s not by exposure,” Parmet says. “The idea that an American coming from South Africa is less contagious than a South African coming from South Africa is just nonsensical. The virus doesn’t care about which passport is in your back pocket.” 

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