There are basically two reasons to impose a travel ban during a pandemic:
- The virus is not currently spreading in the community, and a travel ban may avoiding importing the virus. That’s why restrictions in low-transmission countries like New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos (among others) can make good sense.
- The hospital system is in danger of becoming overloaded. Even if the virus is already spreading, bringing more into a community could tip over a hospital system to the point that care might have to be rationed.
If a virus is already spreading but not overwhelming hospitals then travel bans don’t really serve a significant public health purpose. Where virus is widespread, adding incremental cases doesn’t change the trajectory of the pandemic.
U.S. Travel Bans Have Failed
In the U.S. the China travel ban was badly implemented and porous. The European travel ban came too late, after the virus was already spreading in the Northeast. These bans generally forbid entry into the U.S. by non-residents who had been in either area within 14 days of arrival. Iran and Brazil were added to the list of forbidden countries as well.
The U.S. never imposed a domestic travel ban, and the virus spread from hot spots throughout the country. And it never imposed travel bans on Bahrain, Qatar, or Armenia which have more per capita cases than the U.S. nor was India with over 9 million confirmed cases (and may have had over 100 million infections by summer).
Lifting Europe Travel Ban Now Is Odd Timing
It’s rather odd timing – when some health systems in the U.S. are being overloaded, and the virus is spreading widely in Europe – but the Trump administration is considering lifting the ban on arrivals from Europe and Brazil. They are not, apparently, considering lifting the ban on arrivals from China which has largely had its Covid-19 outbreak under control for more than half a year.
Meanwhile the U.S. CDC would like to see arriving passengers test negative 1-3 days prior to travel, quarantine on arrival, and then test again 3-5 days later. That would limit the number of people traveling with the virus and keep most people who have it from spreading it. The CDC has proven itself incapable of managing such a regime which would be more appropriate for a country like Singapore that’s trying to contain the virus than a country experiencing uncontained spread.
Trump Administration Appears To Be Trying To Position Biden As Soft On China
If the U.S. were to lift the European an Brazil travel bans, which have failed to mitigate U.S. spread of the virus, this would not be reciprocal: U.S. travelers would still face restrictions entering Europe. And it would leave travelers from China and Iran as the only ones in the world we’re officially worried about, a tell more about the current administration’s animosities than of sound policy.
It would appear that the administration is looking to make this change before the handover of power, so that the story about any future relaxation of restrictions is specifically focused on China – rather than allowing a Biden administration to lift all restrictions at once, making the story about travel restrictions broadly. The one frame that’s seemed to work best in predicting policy during the current administration has been that ‘owning the libs’ is more important than advancing any particular desired public policy.