Many countries, including the United States of America, have banned entry to South Africa from many neighboring countries, as well as South Africa, since the Omicron version of Covid-19, which is potentially even more deadly, was discovered last week. Japan and Israel took the more extreme step to prohibit entry from non-citizens. This is unlikely to achieve their objective of keeping the latest variant out, or at least significantly delaying its entry. They will also cause immense suffering if they are not quickly reversed. This is evident from the history of migration and Covid travel bans in the past.
Do you remember how Donald Trump’s bans on travel to China and Europe kept the original Covid away from the United States in the beginning? How about when continued travel bans, combined with massive Title 42 border expulsions and the most restrictive immigration policies in all of American history kept out the more contagious Alpha and Delta variants?
These things didn’t occur, so if you can’t remember them. These policies failed spectacularly and various Covid versions entered the US without a trace – very quickly, in fact.
Similar results can be seen in Canada and Europe for travel bans. These countries also enacted strict restrictions, but failed to prevent variants.
Travel bans were able to delay the arrival of Covid for long enough so that we were better equipped when they did. Sadly, no. It was only temporarily delayed by travel bans, if any, and we have little to show for it.
However, millions have been affected by Covid travel bans. These bans have caused many families to be separated and prevented their loved ones from being reunited in times of need. They also cut off thousands from job opportunities that could benefit them. Because many travel bans include strict migration restrictions, these have caused economic damage and even endangered long-term health care improvements. They also block migrants from contributing to medical and scientific innovations.
Take the case of the South African mother who feels “devastated” that she won’t be able be there with her daughter during major surgery. You will soon see the devastation caused by Covid travel bans.
Travel ban supporters can point to Australia as an example, where Covid was kept out of the country for a while. However, they only combined it with extremely harsh restrictions on civil and internal freedoms of movement. The Delta variant was stopped by Australia. Officials from Australia today openly admitted that they won’t be able stop the Omicron version entering the country. New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet He acknowledged that these variants would be introduced to the country. It is almost inevitable.
Omicron is also being denied by officials in America, starting with President Biden. In Europe, the same applies.
This sad history led public health specialists, who often support a variety of Covid restrictions, not to vote for the latest travel bans. Scott Gottlieb (former FDA Commissioner) is the author of an important book on the pandemic. He argues they may even be counterproductive.
Gottlieb is among others who warn against travel bans in countries where new variants are revealed. This can encourage people to hide the existence and cover up its existence until it spreads so widely that it becomes difficult to trace.
The theory is that governments can impose travel bans for a very short time when there’s a new, potentially deadly variant. This would allow them to conduct research and prepare. Once the virus is discovered, the government can remove the ban. This would allow us to maximize the benefits of travel bans while minimising the suffering.
Perhaps this would work for well-informed “benevolent derpot” governments. These are immune from political pressure and meticulously weigh the benefits and costs. Unfortunately, these benevolent despots who are well informed and trustworthy can be hard to find. Real world information is scarce. Governments are often unaware of new diseases or variants.
Travel bans, along with associated restrictions on migration, tend to stay in place for several months after they are implemented. After the Covid epidemic, the bans that were put in place to stop the spread of the virus continued in effect for many months.
These restrictions were kept in place because of political motivations. Some on the right saw the Covid crisis as an excuse to place severe restrictions on migration, which they have long supported. Many politicians, both on the right and left, feared being “soft” about Covid. Many politicians feared that they would be seen as “soft on Covid” by those who were unable to communicate the message that the government was serious about solving the crisis. Political and bureaucrats from all walks of life are more than willing to inflict suffering on the families of recent immigrants, foreign workers and their families, even if they have little or no political influence.
If voters knew more about Covid policies as well as border closures, such dynamics would be much less trouble. Those who do not follow the rules will likely face severe consequences. While this is true, it also hinders monitoring on other issues.
Ideal governments might be trusted to have the ability to shut down borders whenever a new disease or variant emerges. We don’t have the ones we do.
Although it is tempting to suggest that travel bans, and other “public-health” measures should be left to experts, this would not make sense. Travel bans should be considered justified by scientists. In fact, it makes good sense to give scientists authority in their fields of expertise. This is something I wrote about myself.
But the merits of travel bans – like other severe restrictions on liberty – do not depend on technical scientific considerations alone. There are also moral, socio-economic, and economic aspects to them. Scientists aren’t experts on these types of questions. Scientists often have a lower level of expertise than experts in other areas. The latter include people who are experts in international migration and free movement and those who have done research to determine how public ignorance might hinder carefully calibrated policies.
It just so happens that I am an expert in these fields and have a track record of peer-reviewed publications. This doesn’t mean that I am right. This is far from true. Everybody makes mistakes in their own areas. It does not mean I or others from similar backgrounds should defer to them on aspects of Covid policies that are relevant to my own knowledge. It is notable that some public health professionals have begun to question the effectiveness of Covid travel bans. If people from different backgrounds come to similar conclusions it can help (though not necessarily be the right answer!) It is a sign that the truth is out there.
In summary, it is important to lift the current bans on travel. The power to issue travel bans must be eliminated or severely restricted in the medium- to long-term. It will not be an easy task. It may not be easy, but it could help to prevent further horrific harms like the ones we’ve seen in the past two years.