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Coronavirus: are travel bans an effective way to curb Covid-19's spread?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 10/3/2020 Swee Kheng Khor
  • Politicising an outbreak is irresponsible. Viruses have no passports and those who want to travel will find a way around travel restrictions
  • In today’s borderless word, we must find new ways to collaborate globally – our entire existence as a species depends upon it

The Covid-19 illness is now in more than 100 countries worldwide, and the number of infections and deaths will continue to spike before this outbreak gets better. This is a species-level war between Homo sapiens and coronavirus, not between countries or individuals. Yet, the nationalist instincts of governments and societies are increasingly expressed through travel bans and xenophobic rhetoric, worsened by a social media “infodemic”.

This is normal because outbreaks are political, social and psychological phenomena as much as they are scientific, medical and epidemiological. Successfully tackling them depends on scientists and politicians having equal stature, but the current crisis has seen politics overriding science in decisions surrounding travel restrictions.

Indeed, politicians have used this outbreak as a foreign policy tool – see Cambodia’s refusal to repatriate its citizens from Wuhan in a show of solidarity with China; an excuse to propagate inflammatory or unhelpful zero-sum rhetoric, as with United States Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ comment that the virus “will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America”; or in the case of the six countries who refused docking rights to the Westerdam cruise ship over fears of contagion, a pretext for succumbing to mob mentality.

More than 80 countries or jurisdictions are currently imposing some form of travel restrictions on China or its citizens, most of which have been decreed by politicians. For travellers from South Korea, the country with the second most cases, that number is even higher, with 106 countries now enforcing entry restrictions or quarantine procedures, its foreign ministry said on Monday.

Similar bans are also being imposed as cases surge elsewhere, with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all denying entry to anyone who has recently travelled in Italy’s hardest-hit northern regions, and India effectively banning all Italians regardless of their country of origin.

Foreign nationals leaving Iran, meanwhile – with its more than 4,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and 124 deaths – are barred from entering the United States or Singapore and must undergo 14 days of quarantine before entering Australia.

All this is possibly against Article 43 of the legally binding International Health Regulations (2005), which states that any travel restrictions must be supported by science and comply with relevant World Health Organisation guidance.

While science is imperfect and will evolve during volatile events such as outbreaks, countries at present appear to be engaged in an escalatory travel ban “arms race”. Politicians and governments are outbidding each other to appear the safest, strongest or most responsible, and weaponising safety measures to score political points.

a group of people in a store: South Korean soldiers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant to help prevent the spread of coronavirus at Daegu International Airport last week. Photo: AFP © AFP South Korean soldiers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant to help prevent the spread of coronavirus at Daegu International Airport last week. Photo: AFP

Politicising an outbreak is irresponsible, and travel bans don’t work. Viruses have no passports and those who want to travel will find a way in this hyperlinked world. Bans could create a false sense of security that promotes complacency and diverts attention and resources away from other important measures like contact tracing and surveillance. The first wave of restrictions didn’t protect against new countries acquiring Covid-19, as the disease caused by the coronavirus is known.

Bans also disrupt medical supply chains and carry administrative, ethical, diplomatic and economic costs, as well as human rights implications, that outweigh any potential benefit. Equally, they destroy trust and hinder life-saving information-sharing between countries, especially during a time of escalating US-China tensions surrounding trade, geopolitics, security and information. In this sense, Covid-19 is the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and vice versa.

What’s more, such bans might not even be necessary. China and Italy have essentially locked down hundreds of millions of citizens; the ethics of quarantines and human rights aside, this is doing the world a huge favour. Citizens elsewhere are voluntarily staying at home. Airlines are cancelling flights following the laws of supply and demand. With these three fundamental forces, bans could be just political theatrics as the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Yet politicians resort to travel bans for a combination of reasons. With trust in governments declining everywhere, leaders want to shore up their legitimacy by appearing responsive and responsible. Bans fit neatly into a nationalist agenda and allow politicians to fit the narrative of being both strong and caring. Strong borders could also be a society’s psychological reaction to decades of rampant globalisation that eroded the identity and control of nation states.

a man standing in front of a crowd: A Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer to screen Ethiopian Airline cabin crew on Wednesday. Photo: AP © AP A Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer to screen Ethiopian Airline cabin crew on Wednesday. Photo: AP

A global trend towards the reductionism of complex political problems means that travel bans are often considered intuitive and simple for citizens to understand. Unfortunately, such bans are also an easy populist outlet for underlying racism and chauvinism amid fears of a rising China.

To be fair, there can be some benefits to travel restrictions, scientifically. As seen in the unprecedented Wuhan shutdown that slowed the dispersal of infection by 2.9 days, perhaps buying time for other responses, travel bans can slow but cannot eliminate disease transmission. Bans could also calm angry citizens demanding visible action, providing policy and operational space for governments. The additional legitimacy gained by a responsive government can inspire citizens to self-report, self-quarantine or to trust science more generally.

Nation states continue to ask their citizens to believe that their borders will protect against every threat. Borders may have been helpful in a world of state-on-state warfare, where migration and globalisation was minimal, but they cannot effectively protect against outbreaks, climate change, antimicrobial resistance, overwhelming migration, global tax governance, or accelerating global inequality.

a close up of a white wall: Virus outbreaks are species-level challenges, like climate change-induced droughts, that require global collaboration. Photo: Reuters © Reuters Virus outbreaks are species-level challenges, like climate change-induced droughts, that require global collaboration. Photo: Reuters

These are species-level challenges that require nation states to enter a new era of enlightened self-interest. These problems require collective action, with incremental changes in some parts of the global governance architecture and dramatic reform in others. We must find new ways to facilitate, incentivise and reward collaboration between individuals and between nation states in today’s borderless world.

The panorama of human history has encompassed survival of the fittest for not only the individual, but kingdoms, nation states and companies. With the array of existential threats in the Anthropocene, we must now consciously enter a new era: survival of the fittest species. Our entire existence depends on new ways to collaborate globally, not retreat behind the ramparts every time a global crisis arrives.

Borders are psychological, legal and political relics of the nation state era. They are fit-for-purpose for yesterday’s Westphalian order but woefully inadequate for today’s species-level threats. Travel bans during the Covid-2019 outbreak are unfortunately predictable, but they could be the last gasps of nation states before we enter tomorrow’s necessary new era of global collaboration.

Dr Swee Kheng Khor specialises in health systems, health policies and global health, and is currently based at the University of Oxford

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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