As travel restrictions continue to be loosened and tightened in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging countries to work toward more permanent solutions that will help reopen international borders—with safeguards in place.
“It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, stated during the organization’s July 27 press briefing. “Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume. So, how do we reopen and how do we re-engage in global commerce and the movement of people and goods and services, but do it in a way in which we minimize the risks associated with that of moving the disease with those people, goods, and services?”
Ryan noted that one of the biggest concerns governments have regarding the lifting of travel restrictions is the risk of the disease moving from an area of high transmission into a country or region that has worked hard to get transmission under control. Consequently, countries need to identify how to open up their borders in a way that presents the least amount of risk.
“We do believe that it is possible to identify and minimize the risks associated with international travel,” said Ryan. In order to do so, he suggested that governments implement policies to ensure that infected people don’t travel, that there are proper health checks along the way, and that travelers are monitored (or self-monitor) after arrival.
He noted that travel bans on their own do not work to contain the spread of infectious diseases.
“WHO has always advised that travel measures should be used in conjunction with other measures. By themselves travel measures are not effective in dealing with the movement of disease,” said Ryan.
The WHO consists of 194 member nations but has no direct authority over its members. The 72-year-old international organization was created to monitor health emergencies, develop public health policies, and help ensure that underserved populations receive health care.
In the six months since the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, the world has learned a fair amount about the measures that can help contain the spread of coronavirus, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated during the same July 27 briefing.
The basic measures needed to suppress transmission are:
- Keep your distance from others
- Wash your hands
- Avoid crowded and enclosed areas
- Wear a mask where recommended
“Where these measures are followed, cases go down. Where they’re not, cases go up,” stated Ghebreyesus.
From a public health perspective, countries that have adequately traced, isolated, tested, and cared for those who contract COVID-19 have been able to either prevent large-scale outbreaks (such as Cambodia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as islands in the Pacific and in the Caribbean) or bring larger outbreaks under control (such as in Canada, China, Germany, and South Korea), the WHO reported.
Effective measures for controlling coronavirus outbreaks—and for safely reopening borders and businesses—have become increasingly important as the pandemic shows no signs of subsiding. As of July 27, nearly 16 million cases worldwide and more than 640,000 deaths had been reported to the WHO.
The WHO statement on the opening of international borders comes less than one week after several major airlines called on the United States and the European Union to restore transatlantic air travel by deploying a joint COVID-19 testing program.