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Will US lift air travel ban without bias?

By Ong Tee Keat | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-10-13 07:17
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The United States's announcement that it would ease air travel restrictions came as a surprise to the world after a long wait. The White House announced that the country will reopen in early November this year to air passengers from 33 countries and regions, including China, India, Brazil and most of Europe, who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The unexpected news was greeted blissfully by the US' trans-Atlantic allies. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it is "a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again".

But amid the euphoria of the US allies, several questions of global concern still remain unanswered. Will the US' New International Air Travel System, which requires full vaccination, apply to all countries and regions?

The tough pandemic-related air travel ban was first imposed early last year with China as the first target. Yet the US has granted entry to foreign air travelers from more than 150 countries and regions throughout the pandemic. What has been baffling thus far is that some countries on the restricted list had novel coronavirus infections well under control, while many others with high rates of COVID-19 morbidity were not subjected to any restrictions. The unjustifiable yardstick has been keeping the international community guessing.

A case in point is China, which despite being the first country to largely contain the pandemic and the only major economy to resume near normal economic activity besides achieving positive growth last year, has been subject to the restrictions. Some political pundits and media outlets attributed the air travel ban on Chinese people to the geopolitical rivalry between the two powers.

China is only one of the 33 countries and regions on which the ban has been lifted but the spotlight seems to remain focused on China. Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not specified the vaccines the US authorities would approve as acceptable for fully vaccinated people, speculation is rife that the Chinese vaccines would finally be included in the CDC's list. It has been reported that people fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration or World Health Organization would be allowed entry into the US. In the case of Chinese vaccines, the WHO has granted approval for emergency use.

Though the US announcement on easing travel restrictions on Sept 13 was unexpected and appeared hasty-given the rise in COVID-19 cases a week earlier-the rationale behind the move is understandable because the US, like its allies, needs to strike the right balance between pandemic control and economic recovery. Realizing that it cannot adopt a "zero-tolerance" attitude toward COVID-19 infections, the US has no choice but to co-exist with the virus.

Taking cognizance of the reality, the US, perhaps has to go for a more pragmatic option of resuscitating its economy. The politicians, no doubt need geopolitical rhetoric to win votes, but ultimately they have to give way to market pragmatism at a time when the country is reeling from the pandemic-induced economic fallout.

Air travel is crucial for the US tourism industry and other related sectors such as the transportation, hospitality and retail businesses. No narrative by the China hawks on Capitol Hill can conceal the fact that Chinese tourists had been the source of huge revenues to the US before the air travel ban was imposed against them in January 2020. A case in point, according to the World Economic Forum data, of their total spending of $277 billion overseas in 2018, Chinese tourists spent $36 billion in the US.

If Chinese people fully vaccinated with Chinese vaccines are allowed to enter the US again, it will certainly be a positive step toward a thawing of the frosty bilateral relations.

The inclusion of the Chinese vaccines in the final CDC list will provide an ideal enabler.

From the US' perspective, the new International Air Travel System will help the authorities to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when the air travel ban is lifted. It includes the collection of contact tracing data from foreign passengers travelling to the US, thus enabling the CDC to trace travelers exposed to COVID-19 in case of a new outbreak.

This is based on science, the right approach to managing the pandemic, which is equally applicable to drawing up the list of vaccines accepted by the CDC.

The world is watching the US closely as the November deadline approaches. It is the common aspiration across the globe that common sense will ultimately prevail in realizing a concerted globalized fight against the deadly contagion.

The author is chairman of the Centre for New Inclusive Asia in Malaysia. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise, or would like to share your thought about our stories, then send us your writings at opinion@chinadaily.com.cn, and comment@chinadaily.com.cn.

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