Will Trump's New Travel Restrictions Help Combat Coronavirus?

Here's what public health experts are saying.


Even advocates of open borders can support reasonable temporary travel restrictions to protect the public from extreme health threats. And the coronavirus pandemic certainly fits the bill. But how effective will President Donald Trump's new travel "ban" be?

The answer isn't clear yet. At this stage, experts are deeply divided.

Here's the background. Trump restricted travel from China and Iran, the first countries to be hit with the virus, on January 31. This week he extended the restrictions to the 26 countries in the European Union's Schengen region, where citizens can travel freely across national borders without visas or passports. People in these countries—or all those who have visited them in the last 14 days—will be banned from the United States for the next 30 days, starting tonight. Americans and U.S. permanent residents who clear a screening are exempted from the ban. (The ban does not cover the United Kingdom, which is not part of the Schengen region, though the U.K. has roughly 500 confirmed cases of the virus. That's the same as Sweden, which is among the banned countries. Moreover, U.K. is on an upward trajectory.)

Trump's former homeland security adviser, Thom Bossert, thinks the ban will be of "little value." He noted in a series of tweets that America already has 1,323 confirmed cases of the disease, a number that is comparable to the rate in some of the countries—Germany, France, Spain—in Trump's ban. So it's not like this change will prevent the virus from reaching our shores. Meanwhile, enforcing a ban entails both direct costs and opportunity costs, diverting resources from where they could have been deployed more effectively. In a few weeks, Bossert insists, America will regret "wasting time and energy on travel restrictions." It would be far better, he maintains, to focus on hospital preparation and large-scale community mitigation.

Private companies, meanwhile, have been way ahead of the government on this. When Trump was minimizing the severity of the problem, many had already done their own risk analysis and started radically restricting all non-essential employee travel, in many cases stopping it altogether. Many airlines suspended flights from all the three affected provinces in China around January 28, several days before Trump did. They have likewise significantly scaled back flights from Europe.

On the other hand: Large companies may be beating the government to the punch in restricting employee travel, but that does not mean that smaller players and individual travelers are doing so. Slapping restrictions on them won't keep the country corona-free. But the the game now is "flattening the curve"—slowing the exponential spread of the disease and minimizing the number of people who contract it, so hospitals aren't overwhelmed by a crush of patients all at once. A slower disease trajectory will also buy the country more time to scale up screening capacity and develop treatments and cures, ultimately lowering the fatality rate.

To accomplish this, reducing the total number of disease vectors in the country may not be a bad idea. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight Committee that 70 percent of the new cases are linked to Europe, making it the new China. So he thinks restricting travel from their to limit the number of new vectors is worth doing.

But there are dangers to this strategy. In the past, draconian travel bans have driven desperate people to try to enter the country illegally—and therefore without any screening whatsoever. That would increase, not diminish, the spread of the disease. At the same time, it will lead to calls to militarize the border even further.

Moreover, bans also prevent international experts and aid workers from going to the affected countries because they fear that they might not be able to return home. This makes the situation worse in those countries, increasing the global risk.

There are no perfect solutions here. With the ban in place, we'll soon see whether it makes the situation better or worse.