The Costs and Benefits of Limiting Movement to Fight Coronavirus

The World Health Organization advises against “the application of travel or trade restrictions” to limit the spread of virus.

The Costs and Benefits of Limiting Movement to Fight Coronavirus
A traveler wearing a protective face mask at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- With border controls tightened and multiple countries locking down their citizens in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a debate rages about the trade-offs of restricting people’s movements. The constraints have been credited with slowing the spread of the disease. But such measures -- both inside countries and between them -- carry huge economic costs.

1. What’s the downside of restricting movement?

As some of the largest U.S. states and huge countries such as India forced people to stay home from mid-March, there was more discussion of how the measures disrupt commerce and supply chains, crippling economies. U.S. President Donald Trump ignited alarm on March 24 when he said he envisioned U.S. restrictions lifted by Easter Sunday, April 12; he later outlined plans to determine which parts of the country were still at risk. He expressed concern about the harm of a long-term economic shutdown, warning of thousands of suicides if there’s a prolonged downturn. Some billionaires raised risks such as surging unemployment, personal bankruptcies and social unrest.

2. What about supply chains?

Travel restrictions can interrupt the flow of aid, technical support and goods that people need. Bottlenecks at closed borders within the European Union are putting food and medicine deliveries at particular risk. Italy’s Coldiretti agricultural lobby said many truck drivers are reluctant to enter other countries to make their drop-offs for fear of not being able to return; some truckers were also hesitant to deliver supplies to New York City. Also, restrictions on movement can contribute to the stigmatization of people from communities affected by epidemics and create a false sense of security in unaffected areas, distracting officials from taking other measures. The fear of having trade and travel limits imposed on an area can lead governments to conceal outbreaks.

3. How has movement been restricted inside countries?

China in January imposed what was at the time the most extensive quarantine in known history. In a lockdown affecting as many as 60 million people, Chinese officials sealed off Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and nearby cities in Hubei province. Within these areas, people were largely confined to their homes. China’s success curbing the outbreak won praise, and its lockdown attracted imitation. First Italy then a slew of other countries or jurisdictions adopted similar measures, including California, New York and the U.K. Schools and universities were closed, public events were canceled, and gatherings were barred.

4. What about movement between countries?

The first travel restrictions began in January and focused on people who had been in mainland China and other viral hotspots in Asia. As the epicenter of the pandemic moved to Europe, curbs went up on traffic from and between countries there. Ten members of the EU, as well as non-EU states Switzerland and Norway, reintroduced border checks for the first time since 1995 even though they are members of Europe’s passport-free travel zone, known as the Schengen area. In all, more than 50 governments placed blanket bans on incoming travelers, and more than 80 others banned travel from specific countries viewed as virus hotspots, according to data compiled by the International Air Transport Association and Bloomberg reporting. China is now among many countries restricting some inbound flights to combat imported cases.

5. Why was China’s crackdown seen as successful?

In its first major report on Covid-19 Feb. 28, the World Health Organization concluded that with cases in China falling, the country’s “bold approach,” which included the lockdowns, “changed the course” of the epidemic. WHO officials said China’s strict quarantine likely bought the rest of the world two to three weeks to prepare for the virus and prevented hundreds of thousands of people from becoming sick. Two subsequent studies estimated that in its initial weeks, the lockdown reduced cases exported from China by 80%. As China lifts restrictions to restart its economy, officials everywhere are watching to see whether coronavirus infections begin to rise again.

6. What’s the World Health Organization say?

In a March 10 report, the WHO advised that measures restricting people’s movements during the Covid-19 outbreak should be proportionate to the public health risk. They should be short in duration and reviewed regularly as more information about the virus becomes available.

The Costs and Benefits of Limiting Movement to Fight Coronavirus

7. Is health screening at borders effective?

The WHO advised on Feb. 29 that temperature screening at border points “is not an effective way to stop international spread.” A big reason is that monitoring for fever may miss infected passengers still in the incubation phase and asymptomatic, or those trying to hide symptoms by taking medication. People suffering from other illnesses could also get caught up in the process. What it does recommend is collecting health declarations from people when they arrive. These typically ask travelers to state any disease symptoms and recent trips to epidemic hotspots, and to give a seat number and contact details, in case it’s necessary to trace travelers later. The debate over how to deal with air passengers was complicated by scenes of chaos at airports.

8. What has this meant for the travel business?

As travel came to a standstill around the globe, there were warnings that most airlines will go bankrupt by the end of May if they can’t find government support. Aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers are also under immense pressure, with Boeing Co. calling for billions of dollars in state support. Some lawmakers considered making bailouts conditional on maintaining service. Cruise companies have also suffered and some ships were temporarily trapped at sea, as governments seek to keep cases away from their shores.

The Reference Shelf

  • How the EU’s border closures are disrupting trade and threatening integration.
  • Halting the movement of people could hurt more than curbing the flow of money, Clara Ferreira Marques argues for Bloomberg Opinion.
  • A historical review of travel restrictions aimed at fighting disease in the journal Emerging Infections Diseases.
  • QuickTakes on what you need to know about the coronavirus, whether you should wear a mask, how it spreads, the quest for treatments and a vaccine, and the meaning of a pandemic.
  • The WHO website on the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The IATA’s compilation of government measures related to the coronavirus.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a coronavirus web page.

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