MANKATO, Minn. – Local professor Scott Fee made sure he learned about the coronavirus situation in South Africa from a friend on the ground before he arrived on November 16.
But his friend could not have known crucial information.
In mid-November, the country was sequencing a sample of the virus – taken on November 9, a week before Fee’s arrival – which, a few days after landing, was found to contain a “worrying variant”, which has earned the name omicron and prompted the United States and other governments to ban foreigners from traveling from South Africa and seven other African countries.
“People take this very seriously,” Fee said earlier this week from Johannesburg, adding that most of Mankato’s parameters were more lax. “I just came home from a walk to a grocery store about five blocks away andâ¦ on the sidewalk, everyone is masked.”
A professor of construction management at Minnesota State University, Fee has asked to be on leave this fall and plans to return during the last week of December to prepare for next semester, the Mankato Free Press reported.
He is fully vaccinated and, because he is a US citizen, does not expect any problems upon his return from South Africa unless he tests positive for COVID-19 in the hours before his flight.
He said he was in no rush to return after South Africa identified the new variant on November 24. Still, omicron’s international review led Fee’s generally daring dad to send him two emails in 24 hours, asking if his son could return home.
âI’m in no rush right now to be on an airplane and in international terminals,â Fee said, noting that early evidence shows omicron is more transmissible. “I have my own place here. Everyone I spend time with is fully vaccinated and masked. So I’m in no rush to come back.”
He saw with dismay those looking for international flights from South Africa in previous days stranded at the airport, with planes grounded in confusion and many countries restricting travel from southern Africa.
As of Monday, the United States is barring entry to non-citizens who were in any of the eight countries in the continent’s southern region, including South Africa. Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union have instituted similar bans.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations, however, have criticized the flight bans, with the WHO regional director for Africa saying on Sunday that the travel restrictions could slightly reduce the spread of COVID-19 “but impose a heavy burden on life and livelihood “.
The director also praised South Africa for sequencing and briefing the world on the new variant, a fact apparently lost in subsequent decisions by countries to isolate the nation. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the restrictions were “totally unwarranted” and largely unnecessary, simply hurting his country’s economy during a season when international tourism generally abounds.
Fee’s connection to the country began in 2007, when he helped build a college, Eden Campus, with a South African friend. Fee has since made more than two dozen trips around the country and forged close relationships with friends and colleagues.
He said the travel restrictions hit him and others as a knee-jerk reaction that effectively punished a nation for its scientific rigor and transparency. Reports he followed cited studies that suggest bans are ineffective in curbing the spread of disease.
âThe best quote I’ve heard isâ¦. ‘Stopping all travel from Africa is like locking your screen door: it makes you feel like you’ve done something,â Fee said. . “And I think it was a decision based more on feelings than science.”
In the meantime, he plans to visit friends at their home and spend the second half of the month at Eden Campus. Most of his plans aren’t what a traditional tourist would, so infectious diseases seem less likely to hit him.
In South Africa, Fee said, the consensus seems clear on COVID-19.
“I have not heard any politician (…) say anything against masks, against vaccines,” he said. “It’s so one-way. It’s a little surprising to me because it’s not what I’ve been used to, what I’ve seen at home.”