FACT CHECK: Would travel bans against China have prevented the spread of COVID-19 in Canada?
Updated: May 1, 2020
MOSTLY FALSE. The notion that targeted travel bans against China would have prevented the spread of COVID-19 is not supported by epidemiological research.
On April 22, columnist Tristin Hopper wrote a piece for the Toronto-based National Post claiming that “Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic didn’t need to be this bad.” Hopper argued that experts who said in February and March that travel bans don’t work have been proven wrong (he points to this CBC article as one that “didn’t age well”), and that Canada should have followed the lead of countries that implemented travel bans against China.
“Let’s look at some places that aren’t squeamish about travel restrictions. Taiwan: In early February, they mandated that if you had been to the People’s Republic of China in the last 14 days, you weren’t getting in. Singapore had a similar restriction by Jan. 31. South Korea. All of these countries are right next door to Ground Zero for COVID-19,” he writes. “They had days of warning, we had months of warning, and they’re outperforming us.”
Hopper’s claims are mostly false or misleading. Let’s break down the facts.
First, Canada didn’t target China for a travel ban in January or February, but it did restrict travel for all visitors around the same time as other countries. There’s a difference between a total ban and targeted travel restrictions. Donald Trump’s travel ban on entry to the United States from China is a targeted restriction, because it applies only to China. Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea also banned travel from China in January and February (in South Korea, the ban only applied to Hubei province, where Wuhan is located).
Canada opposes targeted bans, and hasn’t reversed its position on the topic. Instead, it banned the entry of all foreigners. “It didn’t target China, it targeted every country. Essentially, it imposed a travel ban against itself,” says Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law, and political science at York University (and one of the experts featured in the CBC article above). “That is unprecedented and we don't have science on whether it works.”
Hoffman says Canada was among the earliest countries in the world to impose such a policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the ban on foreign nationals entering the country on March 16 and it went into effect on March 18. By comparison, Singapore banned foreign visitors on March 23 and Taiwan banned all foreign nationals on March 19. South Korea requires that foreigners quarantine for fourteen days upon arrival in the country, but has not banned them so far.
Second, it’s questionable whether the targeted bans Hopper advocates for are effective. Not only do targeted bans discriminate against travellers based on their national origin, research on HIV/AIDS, Ebola, influenza, and H1N1 has found that placing travel restrictions on a specific country are not generally effective. Hoffman says that if a ban targets only one region, travellers can still find ways of evading it, like entering the country by flying through other countries. Even a 90 percent travel restriction only delays the spread of influenza by a few weeks, according to research by the World Health Organization.
The results of COVID-19 travel bans are not promising so far. Think Global Health compared the number of cases in countries that had implemented travel bans on China with those that had not, and found that travel bans don’t appear to be affecting the spread of the virus.
Third, experts consider physical distancing, widespread testing, and contact tracing to be much more effective than targeted travel bans. “If you have a travel ban without widespread community testing, you see the spread continue,” says Dan Werb, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital (and another expert interview for the CBC story).
South Korea has outperformed Canada in deaths per million, but Werb says it’s mostly due to widespread testing which helped them to track and contain the virus. The US, on the other hand, has not done the same level of testing and has struggled to contain the spread despite a targeted ban on China. Scientists don’t recommend against travel bans because they aren’t perfect, as Hopper claims, but because they have little effect on the spread of a virus and a negative impact on the economy.
Overall, there is scant evidence to suggest that targeted travel bans are a good way of containing diseases. Instead, physical distancing and widespread testing to track cases provide the best chance at flattening the curve.
Correction April 30, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled Tristin Hopper's first name. The Walrus regrets the error.