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From the World Health Organization: Updated WHO recommendations for international traffic in relation to COVID-19 outbreak (29 February 2020)

WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.

In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. Furthermore, restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses, and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries. However, in certain circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with few international connections and limited response capacities.

Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures. Such restrictions must be based on a careful risk assessment, be proportionate to the public health risk, be short in duration, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.

Travel bans to affected areas or denial of entry to passengers coming from affected areas are usually not effective in preventing the importation of cases but may have a significant economic and social impact. Since WHO declaration of a public health emergency of international concern in relation to COVID-19, and as of 27 February, 38 countries have reported to WHO additional health measures that significantly interfere with international traffic in relation to travel to and from China or other countries, ranging from denial of entry of passengers, visa restrictions or quarantine for returning travellers. Several countries that denied entry of travellers or who have suspended the flights to and from China or other affected countries, are now reporting cases of COVID-19.

Some countries have engaged in travel restrictions which don't meet the WHO's criteria above. For example, Australia does not have "few international connections", and doesn't have "limited response capabilities". In addition, Australia's travel restrictions have not been "short in duration", definitely not "a few days".

Are travel restrictions during pandemics ineffective in most situations?

In case someone wishes to say that claims by the WHO are not notable, the WHO's recommendations have been cited by government figures. From Australia should ease travel ban on foreigners from China: ambassador (February 17, 2020), China's ambassador noted that Australia's policies were inconsistent with the recommendations of the WHO. Likewise, the WHO's claims were cited by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 12 March.

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    This question is deceiving because it perhaps intentionally makes those outdated guidelines look current. The "updated" WHO guidelines were last updated over a year ago (29 February 2020), the request from China to Australia was issued before that, and the von der Leyen Commission recommendations were issued on 12 March 2020. – David Hammen Apr 10 at 9:48
  • @DavidHammen Thanks for the comment. I've added dates to the first two links. – Andrew Grimm Apr 10 at 12:01
  • The key phrase is that this is about travel bans "to or from infected areas", in other words it is about a situation where some areas are considered infected and some are not. In a world where everywhere is considered an infected area different considerations apply. – DJClayworth Apr 11 at 22:29
  • (1/2) I definitely don't have time to address this properly/find and cite sources (I consider myself qualified to comment since I work in infectious disease modeling, and not just since the beginning of this pandemic ...). In general it depends on factors such as: (1) what are the relative prevalences of the disease in the source and destination countries? (There doesn't have to be very much infection locally before local transmission swamps out imported transmission.) (2) How much infection is caused by people without symptoms (either not yet showing symptoms or people who transmit ... – Ben Bolker Apr 13 at 22:33
  • (2/2) without ever displaying symptoms) (This both leads to underestimates of local transmission, but also makes it harder to screen travelers [the former point argues against the effectiveness of bans, the latter for them].) (3) How feasible is it to implement testing and/or mandatory quarantine rather than an outright ban? (4) How easy are the bans to evade, e.g. by transiting via another country? (5) Do the bans keep out everyone, or only (e.g.) non-citizens? – Ben Bolker Apr 13 at 22:35

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