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Here’s why experts say travel bans implemented to protect us from COVID-19 aren’t as effective as they could be. Jacob Lund/Getty Images
  • Experts say that travel bans may not be as effective against slowing the spread of COVID-19 as we’d hope.
  • Travel bans also have other flaws, including their disruption to people’s lives and the economy.
  • Experts say travel bans may not make much of a difference unless they’re implemented at the right time.

On November 25, 2021, President Joe Biden issued what’s commonly referred to as a “travel ban” related to the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic.

This presidential proclamation restricts entry by non-US citizens who’ve been physically present in eight southern African countries:

  • the Republic of Botswana
  • the Kingdom of Eswatini
  • the Kingdom of Lesotho
  • the Republic of Malawi
  • the Republic of Mozambique
  • the Republic of Namibia
  • the Republic of South Africa
  • the Republic of Zimbabwe

Travel bans during the COVID-19 pandemic have been controversial, with some alleging racism in how they’re implemented. The current travel ban is no exception — it’s been criticized as being unfairly punitive to the countries involved.

In addition, there have been questions about whether travel bans even work.

Just how effective are travel bans, what are their flaws, and are they worth it despite these problems?

We asked Daniel Tisch, PhD, who specializes in public health with the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, as well as Susan Hassig, DrPH, associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, to weigh in.

Tisch said that travel bans have the potential to prevent the introduction of a new communicable disease in an area where it hasn’t yet been transmitted.

“Travel restrictions are not likely to be completely effective at preventing the introduction of a communicable disease,” he said. “But, there is evidence in some situations they may slow the introduction and spread of transmission for a period of time.”

But travel bans don’t work in all situations, he said.

“Travel restrictions combined with a comprehensive public health strategy are most likely to succeed, especially in locations that can maintain more stringent entry controls, like Australia and New Zealand,” Tisch said.

Tisch said that allowing entry for a selected group, like citizens, could defeat the purpose of the ban if there’s not adequate testing, quarantine, or disease surveillance once people enter the country.

In addition, if there’s inadequate population-level disease surveillance prior to the travel ban implementation, it could give a false sense of security if the disease is already circulating locally, he noted.

When it comes to travel bans for COVID-19, Hassig was even more pessimistic about their effectiveness, saying she feels that they do not work.

“This virus moves quickly, asymptomatically,” she explained. “So, halting our travel from one or a few areas will not stop the virus from entering a location/country.”

“And, with COVID-19, we have seen over and over that the bans are put in too late, after the virus is already in the banning location,” she added.

This leads travel bans to not be as effective as we’d hope.

In addition to the fact that travel bans don’t help as much as we’d like, there are other problems with them, according to the health experts with whom we spoke.

“Travel bans are disruptive to people’s lives, societal interactions, and economies,” said Tisch.

“They can also be viewed as discriminatory by singling out select countries/regions/populations,” he added. “The fact that Omicron was first reported in South Africa does not mean that it originated there or that it had not already been circulating in other countries and regions in the world.”

Tisch pointed out that travel bans rarely expand to reach all areas where the disease has been detected, which can lead to discrimination and marginalization of groups.

Further, locales can be penalized for being proactive regarding public health needs, disincentivizing them from conducting public health research and communicating and collaborating with other nations.

“We have far better ways to contain infection,” added Hassig, “but those measures require more effort by the location placing the ban.”

Hassig suggests that steps like screening incoming people no matter where they’re coming from, pre-travel testing, arrival quarantining, and testing again 3-5 days after arrival would be more effective than travel bans.

“Frankly, I see the travel bans as ‘pandemic theatre,’ much like the street sanitation scenes from early in the pandemic, and the use of plexiglass barriers outside of healthcare and places like grocery store checkouts,” she said.

“They are ‘tangible’ actions that can seem to, but do little to actually prevent infection/transmission,” she added.

When asked whether travel bans are worth it despite their flaws, Hassig responded with a flat-out, “No.”

But Tisch was a bit more circumspect.

“The answer depends on the context and situation at a given place and time,” he said, pointing out that “success depends on timing.”

“In cases where a communicable disease (or variant) is already circulating, a travel ban to prevent the entry of the disease or variant will not be successful, and the impact on slowing transmission will depend on many epidemiological considerations,” he added.