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Omicron variant already impacting international student mobility

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The COVID Omicron variant has been detected in more than two dozen countries and is likely present in many more
  • While much is unclear about the risk the variant, as of 1 December 2021, governments around the world are shutting their borders until further notice to several African countries and increasing border protocols such as testing and quarantine requirements

Around the world, government responses to the Omicron variant detected last month have had an immediate impact on student mobility and travel.

The variant, which scientists first identified in South Africa, was spreading rapidly in the country in late-November, and has since been detected in multiple countries around the world. The variant was likely circulating globally before South Africa alerted media, governments, and fellow scientists, but this has not stopped many governments from shutting their borders to South Africa and several other African countries. Some have closed their borders fully to international travellers.

Here’s our roundup of Omicron-related border closures as of 1 December 2021.

Canada

Omicron has already been found in Canada.

Travellers from the following countries are not permitted entry:

  • Botswana
  • Egypt
  • Eswatini
  • Lesotho
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Nigeria
  • South Africa
  • Zimbabwe

In addition, “all fully vaccinated travellers arriving by air from departure points other than the United States will be subject to arrival testing. Fully vaccinated travellers will be required to quarantine while they await the results of their arrival test.”

As for unvaccinated travellers, they will “continue to be tested on arrival and day 8 and quarantine for 14 days. However, those arriving by air will now be required to stay in a designated quarantine facility or other suitable location while they await the result of their on-arrival test.”

Australia

Omicron has already been found in Australia.

Australia will not open its borders to international students and skilled workers on 1 December as planned. The border opening has so far been delayed to 15 December, and Australia is scrapping its travel bubble with Japan and South Korea. The status quo will remain, in which Australia’s border is closed all but “fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and immediate family, as well as fully vaccinated green lane travellers from New Zealand and Singapore and limited exemptions.”

United Kingdom

Omicron has already been found in the UK.

The spread of COVID has been accelerating in the UK for several weeks now, prompting the government to reinstate mandatory mask-wearing in stores, banks, post offices, hairdressers, and on public transport.

As for travel, the government has announced that “All international arrivals must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. The PCR tests are available online from private providers.” In addition, the following countries have been added to the UK’s “red list” of countries from which travellers cannot enter the country:

  • South Africa
  • Botswana
  • Lesotho
  • Eswatini
  • Zimbabwe
  • Namibia
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Zambia
  • Angola

United States

Omicron is now circulating in the US.

Travel is banned to and from the following countries:

  • Botswana
  • Eswatini
  • Lesotho
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
  • Zimbabwe

The US will require all international arrivals – vaccinated and unvaccinated – to be tested for COVID one day before departure, regardless of vaccination status. The Washington Post reports as well that,

“The Biden administration is also considering a requirement for a second test within three to five days of arrival, and possibly requiring travelers to quarantine for seven days — precautions that have been enacted in other countries but would be a first in the United States at the federal level.”

France

Eight suspected Omicron cases have been announced in France.

All travellers (vaccinated and unvaccinated) who are not arriving from EU countries must show proof of a negative COVID test. All flights have been suspended from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Germany

Omicron is circulating in Germany, and COVID cases have recently been accelerating in the country. German authorities have banned arrivals from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Eswatini, Malawi and Lesotho unless they are German citizens or residents.

Japan

Omicron has been found in Japan.

The country is banning all foreign arrivals for at least a month.

China

China has not reported the presence of Omicron in the country. Borders remain closed, as they have for many months.

Russia

Russia has not reported any cases of Omicron as yet. Non-Russian travellers are not permitted to enter from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Spain

Omicron has been detected in the country.

Arrivals from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe must quarantine for 10 days, though they may end their quarantine after a negative virus test on day seven.

International students affected

The severity of the new border closures is illustrated in the case of Michael Lee, a US citizen based in New Jersey, whom Times Higher Education interviewed about his situation. Excited about finally being able to pursue a business degree in Australia upon hearing borders would open this month (before Omicron reversed the opening), Mr Lee “quit his job and sold his car and furniture.” He told THE:

“My flight was supposed to leave on 1 December, and I heard the heartbreaking news yesterday. Now I have no job and I’m homeless. I found someone willing to host me for the night but I will need somewhere else to stay. I hope other students and visa holders are not in as dire a situation as mine. I feel like I’m part of the collateral damage from sudden decisions that the government makes.”

Travel industry braces for downturn

Gary Bowerman, director of Kuala Lumpur-based travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia, told Al Jazeera that Omicron will affect the resumption of intra-regional travel in Asia:

“The problem for the travel industry is that the fear factor, whether science proves it to be justified or not, has returned almost overnight. And this coincides with two of the region’s traditional travel periods, Christmas/New Year and Lunar New Year. Hopes for a regional travel boost were starting to grow but this will dampen, if not decimate, both.”

Story is developing

Fear about Omicron has led to snap border lockdowns across the world, but much remains unclear about the variant. It seems to be more infectious, but this has not been proven. It may make current vaccines less effective and evade our bodies’ immune system response, but again has not yet been determined. A South African scientist has described its symptoms so far as “milder” and different than other COVID strains, but as more cases develop, we will find out more about the relative severity of the mutation.

This is of course an early stage of our understanding of Omicron, and preventative travel measures are likely to continue to change in the days and weeks ahead.


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