The Trump administration’s decision to ban most foreign nationals who had been to China in the last two weeks from traveling to the United States amid an accelerating outbreak of a novel coronavirus there was preceded by calls for similar policies from conservative lawmakers and far-right supporters of the president. Public health experts, however, warn that the move could do more harm than good.
The administration’s public health emergency declaration also requires U.S. citizens returning from China to undergo some level of quarantine, depending on where they had been in China.
Before the announcement Friday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) had called for a ban on all commercial flights from China, and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said the government should consider “implementing a temporary travel ban on travelers from China until the threat is resolved.”
Beyond Capitol Hill, Mike Cernovich, a prominent conspiracy theorist and early Trump supporter, had agitated on Twitter for a Chinese travel ban, as has Michael Savage, another conspiracy theorist and a radio host with white nationalist beliefs. “QUARANTINE! STOP TRAVELERS FROM CHINA NOW!” he said on Twitter last week.
The ban comes on top of moves by major U.S. airlines halting flights to and from mainland China.
The outbreak has sickened nearly 10,000 people, mostly in China, and killed more than 200. A few countries have responded by imposing full or limited travel bans. The Philippines, for instance, has banned travel from the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Countries including the Bahamas, Mongolia, and Singapore have banned all travel from China.
Public health experts have warned that travel bans are not effective at stemming the spread of a virus and can make responding to an outbreak more challenging.
“From a public health perspective, there is limited effectiveness. And then there are a host of other reasons why they can actually be counterproductive,” said Catherine Worsnop, who studies international cooperation during global health emergencies at the University of Maryland.
The World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak a global health emergency this week, has recommended against any travel or trade restrictions in response to the outbreak. Member countries, however, do not have to comply with that guidance.
“Although travel restrictions may intuitively seem like the right thing to do, this is not something that WHO usually recommends,” said Tarik Jašarević, a WHO spokesperson. “This is because of the social disruption they cause and the intensive use of resources required,” he added.
Experts said travel bans could lead to a slew of downstream effects and risk complicating the public health response.
“There’s not only the financial toll on a country that is dealing with this outbreak, but this can discourage transparency, both in this outbreak and in the future,” Worsnop said.
Travel and trade restrictions can lead to dire economic consequences for countries involved, creating a disincentive for them to quickly disclose potential outbreaks to the WHO or other nations. They can hinder the sharing of information, make it harder to track cases and their contacts, and disrupt the medical supply chain, potentially fueling shortages of drugs and medical supplies in the areas hit hardest by the outbreak. They also send a punitive message, which could contribute to discrimination and stigmatization against Chinese nationals, experts warned.
Any effort and money spent crafting and enforcing travel and trade restrictions also take away already-stretched resources from public health measures that have been proven to be far more effective, experts said. Those measures include providing assistance to countries with weaker health systems, accelerating the development of a vaccine or rapid diagnostic test, and clearly communicating with the public about when and how to seek care.
But for politicians, those responses might not feel as tangible an action as enacting a travel ban. During the 2013-2014 Ebola outbreak, there was a flurry of calls for a U.S. ban on travel from the affected countries, including from Donald Trump, then a private citizen.
“People want their government to do something when these outbreaks are happening, and adopting a border restriction is a visible policy that people think works,” Worsnop said.
Enacting such a ban would go directly against the recommendation of the WHO, which has said countries must inform the organization of any travel restrictions they put in place.
“Adopting these restrictions undermines the cooperative approach we need to respond to this kind of outbreak, specifically by undermining the authority of the WHO, which has recommended against these restrictions,” Worsnop said.
Worsnop said she is hopeful that the WHO will be able to hold countries accountable for disregarding its guidance, including pressing countries for scientific justification for their travel policies and calling out governments that have gone against its recommendations.
“Unfortunately, [governments] face domestic and international pressures, and have faced few costs in the past for not following WHO recommendations,” she said.