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Remember When Travel Bans Were Xenophobic?

A Commentary by Brian C. Joondeph

In the early days of COVID-19, health officials knew little other than that this virus was contagious, lethal for some, and originated in China. In late January 2020, President Donald Trump banned U.S. entry to foreign nationals who recently visited China, a common sense measure of turning off the faucet to avoid an overflowing sink of illness in America.

Trump’s political opponents, including the corporate media, pounced, calling him the usual names reserved for Republicans, including racist and xenophobic. During the presidential debates in the fall of 2020, Trump accused Biden of calling him “xenophobic” over his China travel ban.

Biden denied that his accusations of xenophobia were in response to the China ban, yet Biden’s tweet the day after the ban was implemented seemed clear: “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency.”

A few months later, Biden spoke at an Asian American political fundraiser, as reported by The Hill, complaining about Trump’s pandemic response, specifically “denials, delays and distractions, many of which were nakedly xenophobic.”

Fast forward less than two years, with a Democrat occupying the White House and the next presidential election three years away. The corporate media still slants its reporting to avoid reflecting negatively on Democrats.

This week President Joe Biden enacted a travel ban on eight countries in Southern Africa, where the latest coronavirus variant supposedly emerged, ordering the same type of travel ban that he slammed as xenophobic in 2020. But for some strange reason, this time we are hearing little of Biden’s xenophobia.

What a difference a year and a president makes. Back then, Biden said, “A wall will not stop the coronavirus. Banning all travel from Europe – or any other part of the world – will not stop it.” Then-Senator Kamala Harris agreed with her future boss, “Trump’s extended un-American travel ban undermines our nation’s core values. It is clearly driven by hate, not security.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also weighed in, “The Trump Admin’s expansion of its un-American travel ban is a threat to our security, our values and the rule of law. Barring more than 350 million people from predominantly African countries from traveling to the US, this rule is discrimination disguised as policy.”

How is Biden’s recent African travel ban any different? Or even necessary? Where is the media calling out this blatant double standard and hypocrisy other than a few comments from pockets of conservative leaning news organizations?

Is such a travel ban even necessary? The U.S. in now 80% vaccinated against COVID-19, unlike in January 2020 when vaccines were still on the drawing board. Did the Omicron variant originate in Botswana, as reported, or is that where it was first discovered, perhaps originating from one of the many countries already reporting cases?

Interestingly the four affected individuals in Botswana were fully vaccinated according to government officials, and were discovered during “routine genomic surveillance.” If you look and test hard enough for variants, you will find them.

The proverbial cat is already out of the bag, with Omicron variant cases reported in the U.K., Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel, representing multiple continents. Add the Netherlands and Australia to the growing list. It’s too late for a travel ban which will only punish poor and struggling countries of color after the variant has already spread around the world.

This may also serve as a lesson to honest countries reporting a new variant that will only serve to further isolate these countries with travel bans that once implemented, seem to take forever to be repealed. The U.S. travel ban against the European Union was finally lifted after 18 months. Does anyone think the current ban against African countries will only last a few weeks?

Botswana is 97% black, similar to other countries under the travel ban, yet the corporate media is giving the Biden administration a pass on racism and xenophobia, which would be the leading news story if Trump implemented such a travel ban.

Big media is also inexplicably incurious over the timing of this new variant. The U.S.-imposed travel ban did not take effect until November 29, about a week after this South African variant hit the news and was being described as “an emergency.” Yet vaccine maker Novavax was already working on a vaccine for this same variant, “Novavax’s vaccine received its first emergency use approval earlier this month in Indonesia followed by the Philippines.”

How many months ago did Novavax discover this variant given the time necessary to identify the mutation, create a vaccine against it, and perform necessary testing before even applying for emergency use authorization, which they did weeks before this variant hit the news? Why isn’t the media curious about this timing?

Fortunately early reports suggest that those afflicted with the Omicron variant only have “very mild” symptoms found on routine surveillance of several  foreign nationals in Botswana. Through evolutional pressure, most viruses mutate in the “more contagious but less deadly” direction. One might even see a silver lining in this variant with more individuals infected with milder disease, pushing the population closer to herd immunity.

Why is the corporate media slanting their coverage of this new variant to create fear and panic ahead of the Christmas holidays? Media trust is in the toilet these days with 53% of likely voters not trusting the political news they are getting, according to Rasmussen Reports.

The media’s coverage of travel bans and accusations of xenophobia, situationally applicable based on the R or D after the president’s name, only reinforces growing distrust in the media.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, is a physician and writer. On Twitter as @retinaldoctor.

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