Travel restrictions during outbreak needless and illegal, global law experts say

OTTAWA — Global health law experts say dozens of countries — including the United States and Australia — are breaking international law by imposing travel restrictions during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

In a commentary published in The Lancet medical journal, 16 health law scholars argue that the restrictions on travellers who've been in China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, are driven by "fear, misinformation, racism and xenophobia," rather than science.

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And they say those are a violation of the International Health Regulations, legally binding rules meant to ensure that countries don't take needless measures to control the spread of an infectious disease that end up harming people or discouraging countries from reporting new public health risks.

The World Health Organization has advised against travel restrictions during the COVID-19 outbreak on the grounds that they do more harm than good.

Yet Steven Hoffman, senior author of The Lancet commentary and a professor at York University's faculty of health, says 72 countries have imposed restrictions anyway.

And two-thirds of those countries have not reported their actions to the WHO, which in itself is another violation of international law.

"Responses that are anchored in fear, misinformation, racism and xenophobia will not save us from outbreaks like COVID-19," the scholars argue.

"Upholding the rule of international law is needed now more than ever."

In the short term, the scholars argue that travel restrictions prevent needed supplies from getting into regions affected by an outbreak, slow the international public health response, "stigmatize entire populations and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us."

Over the longer term, the restrictions encourage other countries to similarly ignore international law during future outbreaks.

"Effective global governance is not possible when countries cannot depend on each other to comply with international agreements."

In an interview from Geneva, where he is working with the WHO on the international response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Hoffman praised Canada for not imposing any travel restrictions on people coming from China.

"It's probably very hard for the Canadian government to resist calls for things like travel restrictions, which Canadians see other countries doing. Yet it's so important that we do and that we maintain the current evidence-based approach that the government is taking," Hoffman said.

"It kind of makes me proud that my country is doing it right."

By contrast, Hoffman said the U.S. and Australia are prime examples of countries that are breaking international law.

The U.S. has banned entry to foreign nationals who have been in China in the previous 14 days. U.S. nationals and residents who've been in China's Hubei province are subject to mandatory quarantine while those who've visited other areas in China must return to the U.S. only through specified ports where they will undergo health screening and face self-isolation.

Australia has banned entry to visitors who have transited through or been in China on or after Feb. 1. Australian nationals and residents who've been in China must self-isolate for 14 days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2020.

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