The political economy of UK-mandated quarantine
UK travel rules are another example of Northern hegemons’ disingenuousness on Covid.
Anyone who has survived British government-mandated quarantine after returning from a so-called “red list” country will admit the same thing: it’s the pits.
People have likened the experience to incarceration, but while convicts’ civil liberties are severely curtailed because they break what we might deem a social contract, the only “crime” people like me have committed is that we remain at the receiving end of a geopolitical race to the bottom. From refusing to grant South Africa and India intellectual property waivers to manufacture affordable Covid-19 jabs to hoarding vaccines, hegemons of the so-called Global North continue to play a disingenuous game of might makes right.
The UK’s travel rules are another example. Under the pretext of safeguarding public health, the UK has conjured up a scam that enables it to recover Covid-era financial losses. It does this while stigmatising countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and extorting money from their citizens on a massive scale. Britain responded to international censure by “simplifying” its indefensible traffic light system beginning yesterday, but my experience in quarantine demonstrates why its red list must be completely eliminated.
The UK’s attempts at projecting a post-Brexit Global Britain rang hollow as I stood for hours in the immigration line at Heathrow Airport in mid-September, surrounded by predominantly black, brown and other people of colour who had travelled from similarly designated red list countries.
After ten weeks of conducting research in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the latter being the only West African state on the red list at the time, I was naturally fatigued. Sympathetic friends had suggested I pass through a non-red listed country for the required ten days before flying back to London, but that would have added two weeks to an already gruelling trip, not to mention the cost of additional days abroad. Instead, I secured a virement of research funds from my university to cover the astronomical £2,285 quarantine fees, more than the average UK monthly salary, and steeled myself for a period of confined indignity.
I couldn’t help wondering what kinds of personal sacrifices my fellow travellers – many of whom looked like students I would be teaching in the new academic year – had made to endure this level of scrutiny. I wondered how many people had never even made it to the UK because of the prohibitive nature of quarantine. Was my need to expedite returning to the UK worth all the inhumane poking at and prodding of my passport, negative Covid-19 test results, passenger locator forms, quarantine registration documents and receipts? “Choosing” quarantine felt like a cross between compulsion and foolery.
After waiting in multiple queues surrounded by security at every turn, I finally got dropped off at a non-descript hotel near Heathrow eight hours after landing. Another hour of filling out paperwork ensued, including the façade of selecting daily meals from bland menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Accompanied by an escort who substituted as a bellhop, I entered my assigned cell of a room and immediately noticed the muddy-grey-brown stain on the dingy blue carpet, the wall-sized window sealed at all four edges with nary an opening for ventilation.
It struck me as curious that while all quarantine hotels are not created equal – a Brazilian friend at another location had better-quality food, for instance – the UK has standardised the outsourcing of quarantine implementation. This form of cowardice has pitted black and brown people against each other, with Global South nationals executing irrational policies they did not create. I suspect that while Britain has profited from the lucrative enterprise of detaining people who look like me, the South Asian quarantine workers I encountered get paid a pittance for doing the government’s dirty work. This reeks of a racist, colonial system of divide and rule.
Countries in the Global North have done everything in their power to manufacture a multi-tiered system of domination that reproduces Covid-induced inequalities, yet this has not gone unnoticed. While the US has been admonished for double speak – pledging millions of dollars in support of vaccine equity while practicing vaccine apartheid – the UK’s draconian quarantine measures have been aptly pilloried.
For instance, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong denounced the UK’s failure to approve any vaccination programme in Africa, meaning that even fully-vaccinated African nationals must quarantine on arrival. And the UK had to reverse its policy of disregarding Covishield, the Indian-manufactured version of AstraZeneca, after strongly worded accusations of discrimination and racism. With its nationals still not being treated the same as those from other countries, India recently fired back by imposing a 10-day quarantine on British nationals. These are reciprocal requirements that I believe all countries in the Global South should adopt in a show of South-South solidarity.
With the recent UN General Assembly rhetoric of “building back better” and vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by September 2022, the UK’s red list undermines the principles of evidence-based policymaking and international cooperation in times of crisis. In a glaring display of bigotry, the US had more cases of Covid per capita during my time in quarantine than Sierra Leone, yet the former was placed on Britain’s amber list while the latter ended up on the red list. Such opaque cherry picking based on power differentials has got to stop.
The UK must abolish its illogical red list and require travellers who can show proof of negative Covid test results to self-isolate for ten days upon arrival, no matter where they have previously travelled or resided. This will broadcast Global Britain as just and worthy of visitors from all walks of life, rather than a self-appointed regulator of the so-called Global South.