In the last month, the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus has become an increasing concern for the international community. The number of people infected by the virus now exceeds that of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and has forced many countries, such as the United States, to place travel restrictions on passengers arriving from China. Given the scale of this crisis, it is somewhat surprising that the World Health Organisation is still urging governments not to put in place travel restrictions. This is despite the fact that the organisation recently declared that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak represents a global health emergency and not just an emergency in China. To make matters worse, reports from China are subject to strong censorship that is limiting the flow of information about this new virus. Whilst the Chinese government is certainly being more transparent than during the SARS outbreak, there is good reason for foreign governments to be sceptical about the information coming from the Chinese Communist Party about the current scale of this outbreak. As a result, it is understandable that countries are imposing some travel restrictions against the advice of the World Health Organisation.
Of course, the World Health Organisation is not without its reasons. Since the start of this outbreak, it has consistently argued that imposing travel restrictions does more harm than good by. It not only disrupts the flow of crucial medical supplies but also undermines efforts to share information. Even as the number of cases inside China is rapidly growing to over 12000, the World Health Organisation has stuck by this advice and this has meant that many countries (and autonomous territories) have kept their borders with China open. However, other countries are being much more cautious and have pre-emptively imposed travel restrictions on anyone who has recently been to China. For example, the United States is banning most arrivals from China and has issued a level 4 ‘do not travel’ warning for the whole country. This policy, which seems extreme, is for a good reason. The number of currently infected individuals is expected to be far higher than Chinese officials suggest with researchers from the University of Hong Kong arguing that the virus has actually infected at least 75,000 people just in Wuhan. They also suggest that this figure could double every 6 days which highlights how quickly this situation could escalate.
Given this worrying trend, the World Health Organisation is wrong to argue against imposing travel restrictions. If the Wuhan coronavirus reaches other countries where the healthcare system is not robust enough to deal with infectious diseases, the long-term impact of this outbreak could be catastrophic. You only need to look at the 2014-2016 West African Ebola crisis, which killed over 11,000 people, to find evidence of the possible severity of this problem. Given how infectious this new virus appears to be, the danger to countries where healthcare infrastructure is weak cannot be overstated. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation is also advising that countries screen arrivals for signs of the virus as an alternative to travel restrictions. But, this too is problematic as even though much about the Wuhan coronavirus remains unknown, researchers are increasingly certain that it can spread even when it has not resulted in symptoms. This makes measures to screen travellers at airports and other entry points considerably less effective because many arriving passengers with the disease will show no symptoms at all. As such, travel restrictions have become a more effective measure for preventing the spread of the virus to other countries.
In addition, there are also important political reasons that might make travel restrictions necessary. This is because governments around the globe should be rightly concerned about the level of control the Chinese Communist Party is exerting over information about the virus. Indeed, several whistle-blowers were arrested for trying to warn about the potential impact of the virus after it first started spreading and the Chinese government is actively removing any online criticism of its response. Whilst it is not covering up the outbreak as it did with SARS, the Chinese Communist Party is extremely keen to promote an image that they have the virus under control regardless of whether this reflects the situation on the ground. This demonstrates that the Chinese government is primarily concerned with its global image rather than global healthcare security and should not be completely trusted. Given that this is also the government that has denied Taiwan membership of the World Health Organisation because of political disputes, foreign governments are right to be sceptical about where China’s priorities really lie. When dealing with such a government, it is pragmatic to be especially cautious and thus the use of travel restrictions is both practical and justifiable.