Why WHO doesn't like travel bans

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International flight cancellation information is displayed at the Suvarnabhumi Airport as the Thai government extends a ban on incoming passenger flights following the coronavirus outbreak, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by: REUTERS / Soe Zeya Tun

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The World Health Organization has discouraged countries from instituting travel bans and trade restrictions — in large part because experts say they are usually bad public health policy, but also because they create a political problem for the multilateral organization.

“Travel bans, as well as trade restrictions, are policies that the WHO is very reluctant to endorse. The WHO was reluctant to endorse it in the context of COVID-19. The WHO also was against it in the context of Ebola in West Africa,” said Nitsan Chorev, director of the graduate program in development at Brown University, during an online discussion Thursday.

As a multilateral organization that lacks enforcement authority over its member states, WHO cannot directly access countries’ health information and therefore relies on them to provide it.

“In order to be able to monitor and follow potential pandemics, the WHO requires the cooperation of countries,” Chorev said.

“The WHO bureaucracy is very concerned that if countries knew that if they report on new viruses, for example, this would immediately lead to travel bans and trade restrictions, this would be a major disincentive for countries to report to the WHO about what they find,” she added.

The issue has taken on new urgency after U.S. President Donald Trump’s April 14 announcement about halting funding to WHO. That decision was the product of a wide range of White House complaints about the multilateral system, China, and criticism of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but Trump has pointed specifically to a disagreement with WHO’s leadership over the usefulness of travel bans in halting the global pandemic.

“The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?” Trump tweeted on April 7.

The White House instituted a ban on travel for non-U.S. citizens arriving from China on Jan. 31.

Shortly after declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries not to take measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.”

“This would be a major disincentive for countries to report to the WHO about what they find.”

— Nitsan Chorev, director, Brown University Graduate Program in Development

WHO has issued guidance that reflects that same assessment — and which has drawn President Trump’s ire.

“WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks,” the health agency wrote on Feb. 29.

“In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. Furthermore, restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses, and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries,” it noted.

Chorev suggested that when the international community eventually works to resolve some of the disputes that have positioned WHO between rivals like the U.S. and China, the issue of incentives and information-sharing is one that they will likely need to tackle.

“The whole point here is [that] we’re in a pandemic where you have to somehow secure international cooperation,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of the global policy and politics initiative at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

“How little of that is going to happen if there’s a race to close up and solve problems that way? We’ve seen historically that that’s not turned out particularly well,” he added.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.