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Experts Fear Travel Restrictions Have Unintended Consequences for Diplomacy

October 20, 2021 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Early advice from the World Health Organization warned against imposing travel or trade restrictions on countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. Now experts fear the decision by most countries to ignore this advice may have unintended consequences for the future of global mobilization and diplomacy.

“The pandemic did spread in part because of travel,” Thomas Wright, senior fellow and director at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe shared at the think tank’s recent assessment of the challenges of reviving travel post-pandemic. 

“But I didn’t think there would be so little pressure on governments, and the public would allow governments to keep countries closed.”

Wright, who didn’t necessarily agree with WHO’s pre-pandemic advice given the world’s “explosion in global travel,” was still surprised at the rapid pace that countries implemented travel restrictions, as well as their often haphazard and unilateral nature.  

“As time went on, many of these were sort of irrational,” Wright admitted. “Even in [Europe’s] Schengen Zone, borders closed unilaterally, probably in violation of a number of treaties.”

It is unclear if international travel bans and restrictions had any measurable effect controlling the spread of the pandemic after the outbreak’s earliest days, though these policies have deeply impacted current mobility as well as the norms of safe travel in the future. 

“The last 18 months really have seen an unprecedented dent in human mobility of all kinds,” said Meghan Benton, research director at the Migration Policy Institute. 

Citing fear — both of adverse health effects as well as deep uncertainty associated with uncoordinated and changing international policies — she asserted that “the absence of rules has itself been a pandemic management strategy… and the constantly shifting landscape has made it really difficult for people to plan their lives.”

The public may have acquiesced to leisure travel restrictions, but blanket travel bans also kept families apart, stranded migrants requesting assistance, and impacted immigrants who had lost jobs and now didn’t find themselves included in economic support measures. 

Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said early restrictions “seemed like a reasonably painless way to slow the spread of the pandemic… The problem was, as they went along, [restrictions] made less and less sense… and efforts to ease measures — as appropriate — as conditions changed got shut down.”

Despite travel rules that “created a lot of unnecessary human suffering,” Alden pointed out that many countries made the value judgement that trade was critical, developing a system of rules for international trade that helped commerce stay robust while, “on the movement of people side, there was nothing comparable.”

Inconsistencies like this, barriers to mobility, and uncertain reciprocal travel made people realize that “free movement, and the way we understand it, isn’t a… right,” Benton said. But in this liquid moment for new opportunities, nations should look to create policies for current health-safe travel as well as future outbreak response that balance the tradeoffs between safety and public benefit.

“At this moment, it would be good for policymakers and leaders to think about what type of world of travel we want to see in a decade, and how do we get there,” Wright agreed. “Don’t assume it will happen on its own.” 

Continued bans on the unvaccinated, for example, could exclude large parts of the world and massively exacerbate inequalities. Nationalist policies could disincentivize people to travel and experience different cultures as they used to, which could have a profound effect on future international cooperation and diplomacy. 

Raising the alarm, Wright predicted that restrictions, barriers, and disincentives will persist and accumulate, possibly creating a multi-tiered world “justified for public health plans and along geopolitical lines.”

“Over time [this] has a real impact on globalization… play the tape forward five or ten years and you may see real changes in patterns of trade that could affect mutual understanding and globalization.”

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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