EU travel list leaves off star performers while including coronavirus hotspots
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EU travel list leaves off star performers while including coronavirus hotspots

Tuesday, 07 July 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Credit: Belga

After months of lockdown and shuttered borders due to the coronavirus pandemic, the EU is hoping to salvage some of its summer tourism season, kicked off by the July 1st reopening of the bloc’s external borders to a select group of countries deemed to have brought the pandemic under control.

It came as no surprise that some of the world’s hardest-hit countries, such as the United States and Brazil, remain excluded from the safe list. Some of the other exclusions, however, provoke some head-scratching while some of the inclusions seem motivated more by politics than science.

The UAE and Singapore missing from the list despite stringent measures

The absence of the UAE and Singapore from the register of approved countries is particularly notable, given that the two countries boast some of the highest testing rates in the world and having earned praise for their handling of the public health emergency.

The UAE has achieved by far the highest per capita rate of coronavirus tests in the world, carrying out more than 350,000 tests per million people—far outpacing some of the countries included on the EU’s list and contributing to the Gulf nation’s low Covid-19 fatality rate. In addition to such rigorous testing, the UAE’s smooth rollout of the Al Hosn app, which tracks and traces coronavirus cases, has enabled the Emirates to safely reopen workplaces and leisure activities.

Residents and visitors have to show proof of a negative Covid test even for some travel between the emirates, much less for international travel. To travel abroad, would-be tourists from the UAE have to register with the foreign ministry and attend a medical checkup 48 hours before their departure to ensure that they don’t have the virus.

Singapore has turned to similar methods to bring the outbreak under control in the city-state. The Lion City was one of the first countries outside China to record cases of the novel coronavirus, but gained ground through widespread testing and close monitoring of infected individuals. Like the UAE, Singapore has seen its efforts pay off—the city-state has seen just 26 deaths from the coronavirus. This gives it a fatality rate of only 0.06%, stunningly low compared to European countries like Italy, France and Belgium, all of whose coronavirus mortality rates hover around 15%.

Rwanda and Algeria’s inclusion raises eyebrows

Given the UAE and Singapore’s success in beating back the virus, their exclusion from the EU’s travel list is puzzling. Equally mystifying is the inclusion of some countries, such as Rwanda and Algeria, which are still struggling to keep the pandemic under control.

On Saturday, Rwandan president Paul Kagame vowed to defeat the coronavirus, but the situation appears to be going in the wrong direction. Despite deploying high-tech solutions like anti-epidemic robots, Rwanda has been forced to reverse plans to continue loosening restrictions. Just days before the EU began welcoming Rwandan travelers, parts of Kigali went back into lockdown as cases in the capital trended upward.

Algeria’s presence on the safe travel list is even more troubling. Just weeks ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) singled the North African nation out as one of the continent’s Covid hotspots and urged “very strong public health measures” to bring the epidemic under control.

The Algerian government has seemed more focused on exploiting the public health emergency to crack down on opposition activists and infringe on the free press than taking strict measures against the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, cases are on the rise—over the weekend, just days after the EU announced that Algerians could travel to the bloc, Algeria recorded its highest-ever daily increase in cases.

No time for politics as usual

It’s baffling that the EU would roll out the welcome mat for Algeria despite its current spike in coronavirus infections—though French foreign policy could be behind its bewildering inclusion on the safe travel list.  After a diplomatic kerfuffle which saw the Algerian ambassador to France recalled from Paris, French leader Emmanuel Macron and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune pledged to relaunch relations between the two countries.

Whether or not accepting Algerian travelers in the EU was sparked by the détente between Paris and Algiers, policymakers in Brussels should reevaluate the list of supposedly safe countries before loose restrictions abroad spark a devastating second wave of the disease in the EU. After a shaky start in March, the European Union has managed to curb the virus’s growth within the bloc through strict lockdowns, the closure of national borders, and radically ramping up its testing capacity.

Once again welcoming international tourists to the European bloc is an important step in returning to some semblance of normality and is vital for the eurozone’s recovery from the worst economic downturn in its history. Taking a more critical eye to which countries are given the EU’s stamp of approval would ensure that, by opening up the door, Brussels is not undoing all of its hard work to contain the pandemic.