The Coronavirus Travel Bans Are Unprecedented. But Will They Work?

International travelers—and most especially residents of and visitors to China—have a lot to contend with due to coronavirus containment efforts. Experts analyze whether the extreme measures will ultimately prove effective.

The Coronavirus Travel Bans Are Unprecedented. But Will They Work?

The epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak—Wuhan, China—is on lockdown.

Photo by sleepingpanda/Shutterstock

In an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus, authorities in China have cut off flights, trains, and other transport from Wuhan—the epicenter of the outbreak—and 16 other Chinese cities in and around the Hubei province. In total, the lockdown affects some 50 million people who have been isolated in China.

Furthermore, the United States last week announced that noncitizens who have been to China in the past two weeks cannot enter the United States, and Americans returning from the Hubei province are required to undergo 14 days of quarantine. Other countries have implemented similar bans on travelers coming from China, while countries such as Russia have closed their borders with China altogether.

These travel bans and quarantines have been implemented despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) advises against “any restrictions of international traffic based on the information currently available” with regard to the current coronavirus outbreak.

While the WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, Tweeted last week that “this is the time for facts, not fear.”

We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility. This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.#2019nCoV — Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) January 30, 2020

Because travel bans and quarantines on this scale have never been done before, there’s no precedent for determining whether the drastic measures being taken will ultimately work.

“The Chinese government has created the world’s largest public health experiment ever in the history of humankind,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert. “This is an extraordinary effort to confine an epidemic and to very substantially reduce—not eliminate, we can’t eliminate—transmission within the province and also the exportation of disease. And we will see whether there is a plateauing or even a downturn of cases.”

What’s at stake?

To say that there is a lot at stake is an understatement. There are currently more than 24,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and nearly 500 reported deaths in China, according to the WHO. There are nearly 200 confirmed cases in 24 other countries, including 11 in the United States.

The current outbreak is expected to have massive repercussions for the travel and tourism industries, as well as for trade and commerce. It’s estimated that the coronavirus will cost China $60 billion in the first quarter of 2020 alone. And the ripple effects for travel and tourism will likely be felt for months to come and across the globe. China is the largest outbound travel market in the world (Chinese travelers took nearly 150 million international trips in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available), and China is the fourth most-visited country in the world, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Beyond the travel bans and quarantines, numerous airlines have been canceling their flights to China for the coming weeks, furthering limiting movement to and from China. Prior to the outbreak, travel to China from the United States was expected to represent 4.6 percent of U.S. international flight capacity over the next two months, according to a coronavirus impact report released by travel booking site Hopper.

Companies and countries are having to weigh the impact of their decisions against the potential ongoing spread of the virus.

“The economic impacts of travel bans can be high, however, this needs to be weighed against the cost of not imposing a ban and having the virus spread more quickly,” said Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a travel risk and crisis response management company.

Richards noted that travel bans alone will not put an end to the spread of the disease “since it is very hard to create an impermeable ban and identify every individual that might have been exposed and/or infected.”

Why implement the travel bans?

Many public health experts remain skeptical about the benefits of travel bans, according to Dr. Schaffner, who added that there currently isn’t strong data to back the effectiveness of travel bans. Nevertheless, he still stands behinds the coronavirus-prompted travel bans in part because of how extensive they are.

“It’s being applied in a comprehensive fashion that we haven’t really seen before. Nothing quite like this has been done. And its comprehensiveness and its rigor may well reduce profoundly the risk of patients coming into this country and to other countries with coronavirus disease,” said Schaffner.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 3 warning for China and is recommending against all nonessential travel to China due to the outbreak, an indication that there are public health experts who stand by the notion that significantly reducing the flow of travelers into and out of China will help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

When analyzing the effectiveness of these measures, observed Schaffner, “It’s very hard to count the cases that didn’t occur.”

What does this all mean for travelers?

Travelers trying to navigate trip planning amid the current coronavirus outbreak may be wondering how long this outbreak and the corresponding bans are likely to go on, and how and whether to plan trips for the coming days, weeks, and months.

There is currently no end date on the bans that have been put in place, which is going to make it very hard to make decisions about upcoming travel plans that could be affected.

Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director of travel security services provider International SOS and MedAire, a travel risk management firm, advised travelers to stock up on patience and to pad their itineraries with scheduling buffers.

“I encourage everybody [to] have flexibility in their itinerary. Everything is so fluid right now, their planes could be canceled or delayed,” said Quigley. “Not booking connecting flights in close proximity to each other is wise.”

He added that travelers, especially those going to and returning from Asia, should anticipate health screenings at airports, a process that can range from simply being scanned by a no-touch thermometer to filling out a questionnaire or being questioned by a healthcare provider.

“We encourage travel, we want people to travel,” said Quigley, adding that those who are continuing to travel during this outbreak should implement the same health precautions they would when there isn’t an outbreak—don’t travel if you’re sick, wash your hands vigorously and use alcohol disinfectants, don’t put your hands in your mouth, and stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing.

>> Next: China’s Coronavirus Outbreak: What International Travelers Need to Know

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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