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World-Wide Travel Restrictions Violate International Health Regulations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Right now if you want to visit the Great Pyramids or the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, well, you can forget it. Egypt, China and India have all imposed travel restrictions to keep visitors and the coronavirus out. They are not alone. An analysis by NPR based on data from the International Air Transport Association found three-quarters of nations and territories have suspended travel from another part of the world. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, those restrictions largely contradict international health regulations.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Travel restrictions have been with humanity for a long time.

BENJAMIN MASON MEIER: OK, so back in the 14th century, nations start quarantining ships coming in and interrupting international trade.

BRUMFIEL: Benjamin Mason Meier studies global health policy at the University of North Carolina. The quarantines for plague didn't always work, and they did a lot of economic damage. So in the 1800s, nations started trying to develop rules to protect health while protecting the economy. The culmination of those efforts was the 2005 International Health Regulations, a set of rules laid down by the World Health Organization and agreed to by nations.

MASON MEIER: And the purpose is to prevent disease but to do so in a way that provides the least restriction on international traffic and commerce.

BRUMFIEL: The 2005 rules state that travel bans should be targeted and used only when no other reasonable public health alternatives are available. But all that seems to have gone out the window with this pandemic.

TARA O'TOOLE: I think it is a kind of intuitive human reaction to sort of pull up the drawbridge.

BRUMFIEL: Tara O'Toole is at the investment firm In-Q-Tel and a former top scientific official at the Department of Homeland Security. O'Toole says the value of these new restrictions seems to be pretty minimal. Most research on the current pandemic shows that travel restrictions, at best, bought just a few extra days at the start. That's because sick travelers always travel faster than governments can impose bans.

O'TOOLE: Particularly in modern times, when we travel from one end of the globe to literally to the other in 24 hours, the horse is already out of the barn.

BRUMFIEL: So now that the coronavirus has spread basically everywhere, should restrictions be lifted? Not necessarily, says Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University. That's because right now, the only way to suppress the coronavirus is through finding the sick and tracking down their contacts before they can sicken others.

MARC LIPSITCH: And the last thing you want is a bunch of cases coming in that you don't anticipate because they're, obviously, not linked to any local contacts.

BRUMFIEL: For that reason, he thinks travel restrictions may be helpful, particularly for governments that are small and can easily control their borders; places such as islands.

LIPSITCH: It might be better to harm the tourism industry than to go back into a long period of generalized economic disruption from social distancing.

BRUMFIEL: But the U.S. is different. It currently restricts travel from Europe, China and Iran. And Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at Yale University, says those restrictions don't make much sense in the long term because the U.S. is just too big and has too many cases.

NATHAN GRUBAUGH: For the U.S. to say that we can eliminate all virus in the country and then shut down all the borders so that no virus comes in would be completely off-base because there's so many pockets of where virus can be found.

BRUMFIEL: However, Grubaugh says there is another problem with reopening air travel.

GRUBAUGH: The airports and flying themselves is a big risk factor.

BRUMFIEL: Long international flights with lots of passengers crammed together are ideal places for the virus to spread, he warns. In the end, former Homeland Security adviser Tara O'Toole sees only one way out.

O'TOOLE: Hopefully, you know, we will get to the point where we can test people before we get on planes so that you have a good amount of assurance that neither of your fellow passengers are transmitting virus.

BRUMFIEL: Until such rapid testing exists and is readily available, O'Toole and others think it will be hard to reopen borders.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ORB'S "EDELGRUEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.