Sweeping restrictions on international travel in response to the novel coronavirus aren’t an effective way of slowing the spread of infection, two experts say.
“In terms of asking about the right timing, the right timing is probably never,” says Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University.
“I think they serve the purpose of showing that the government is doing something and taking this effort seriously,” he says. “My concern is that it will likely end up causing more harm than good from a public health perspective.”
On Wednesday night, U.S. President Donald Trump announced sweeping restrictions on travel to the United States from Europe. Under the new measures, most non-U.S. citizens would be barred from the U.S. if they have recently visited one of a number of European counties other than the U.K.
In late February, however, the World Health Organization recommended against travel bans except in very limited circumstances, saying they are “ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.”
“Travel bans to affected areas or denial of entry to passengers coming from affected areas are usually not effective in preventing the importation of cases but may have a significant economic and social impact,” the statement said.
University of Toronto infectious disease expert Isaac Bogoch agrees.
“Is this travel ban going to have a measurable effect? I don’t think it will, I really don’t,” he says. “Other measures would be more successful to take at this time.”
Social distancing, discouraging large gatherings, working from home and handwashing are “trusted measures” that can slow infection, he says.
“At the point where you already have widespread community transmission, will banning travel from European countries but not the U.K. really make any difference at this point? I’m of the belief that it probably won’t. I really don’t believe that this will be a helpful strategy.”
Hoffman argues that public trust in measures to fight the epidemic is hurt if some of them seem misguided.
“From a public health perspective, any time we enact broad measures that are unlikely to work, it could end up undermining public confidence in the public health response, for good reasons.”
As well, people will still travel, but in ways that are harder to keep track of. Air travel, because it’s very formal, makes it easy to trace infection and warn people who may be in danger.
“One really great thing about airplanes, from a public health perspective, is that every passenger is tracked, including their seat numbers, where they were sitting, who was sitting near them, such that followup actually becomes relatively easy from a public health perspective. Every other mode of transportation is more difficult to retrospectively track people and who an infected person might have come in contact with.”
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office Thursday, Trump declined to specify whether or not the Republic of Ireland was included in his European travel ban, forcing Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to clarify for reporters that his nation was not included in the ban.
“The U.K. has very strong borders,” Trump said of the decision not to ban travel from that country. “They’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much infection at this point, and hopefully they’ll keep it that way.” (The U.K. has had about 600 known cases and 10 deaths.)
Trump says he didn’t notify European leaders in advance about his decision to impose a 30-day travel ban, telling reporters there is “lots they don’t notify me about.”
“When they raise taxes on us, they don’t consult us, and that’s probably one and the same,” he said. “The European Union has done some very big tax raises over the years, not so much with me because I won’t put up with it, but they haven’t consulted us.”
The EU criticized the U.S. move.
“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” EU Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement.
“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires co-operation rather than unilateral action.”
Trump cited the spread of COVID-19 from China to Europe as justification for the travel ban.
“A lot of people went from China into Europe, and Europe suffered tremendously,” Trump said. “You see what’s going on. I just wanted that to stop, as it pertains to the United States, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Bogoch argues for more traditional responses than travel bans.
“What do we want people to do? We want them to wash their hands, cough into their arms, stay at home if they’re sick. It’s as simple as that.
“We want organizations to be flexible with work, allow sick people to stay at home if they’re sick, allow people to work from home.”
With files from the Associated Press
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