Time’s up on COVID-19 travel restrictions


Author: Jayant Menon, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

With the exception of China, where the first COVID-19 cases were identified in late 2019, every country closed its borders to international travel before introducing domestic restrictions. This made sense during the early phase of the pandemic, as countries tried to insulate themselves from a rapidly spreading virus.

Singapore Airlines stewardesses board their A380 restaurant at Changi Airport in Singapore, 24 October, 2020 (Reuters/Edgar Su).

Since then, countries that have managed to control community transmission have eased domestic restrictions at a faster rate than international ones. Even in countries that continue to struggle to contain community spread, restrictions on domestic movements are nowhere near as stringent as those on international movements.

A policy asymmetry in the treatment of national and international movement is no longer justifiable, and narrowing it could deliver economic benefits without significantly raising health risks.

At present, most countries are disallowing inbound travel except for citizens and select groups, like diplomats. Countries like Australia and the Philippines even restrict outbound travel. This is inconsistent with the trend domestically of moving from general to targeted measures. Countries that have controlled community transmission such as China and New Zealand have developed ‘green lanes’ with countries with similar infections rates to enable travel for select groups, like businessmen. In most cases, testing and quarantine is required.

Even for countries trying to eliminate the virus, these border restrictions appear extreme. In theory, so long as capacity exists for testing and quarantine, there is no need to restrict travel to any particular group or country. But allowing for uncertainty and the risk of non-compliance, countries are more prepared to open to those groups with lower infection rates. These visitors are also more likely to practice social distancing, reducing the likelihood of any issues after arrival.

For countries trying to balance health risks with economic considerations, policy action on the international front is overdue. Countries must go beyond selective easing such as green lanes if they want to revive industries severely affected by prolonged international restrictions. Removing restrictions without removing or reducing quarantine requirements may still deter non-essential travel.

Singapore and Hong Kong are setting up a travel bubble that allows for leisure travel with testing but without quarantine. Thailand is considering experimenting with shorter quarantine periods. As domestic measures shift from trying to eliminate risks to managing them, border policy should catch up.

The technology related to testing and tracing has produced alternatives to quarantine. The risk reducing effect of quarantine could be approximated by rapid and repeated testing protocols and close tracking of movement. If these measures are in place for the entirety of one’s visit, then health risks may be little different compared to quarantine.

The fact that both testing and quarantine are required for most border crossings but not domestic movements suggest an anomaly that may skew risks. By encouraging domestic tourism — which does not require testing or quarantine — to offset the shortfall from international arrivals — for whom quarantine is usually required — health risks could actually increase beyond those associated with removing international curbs to achieve the same economic impact.

Countries with significant rates of community transmission are also facing the greatest economic challenges. The same principle of opening to countries with lower infection rates to balance economic and health concerns applies here too, but only if their healthcare systems are not strained.

These countries also have the largest number of people that have recovered from the virus — the closest we can currently get to vaccination. This group may be the least risky to have moving within or between borders, despite the uncertainty surrounding the duration of acquired immunity.

As their numbers grow, this group could offset some of the shortfall in demand for travel to countries with lower but still high infection rates, since they may be less risk averse because of their recovered status. If their low-risk profile is mutually recognised and quarantine-free travel is allowed, this could provide a needed boost to countries facing twin crises involving health and economy.

Japan, the Philippines and South Korea have seen new waves of infection after relaxing domestic restrictions but retaining international ones. Not all countries in this situation have reintroduced domestic restrictions, although there is often the presumption that this subsequent wave will further delay any international easing. Again, openness becomes the victim simply because it may have contributed to the problem in the past.

What is driving the asymmetry between domestic versus international restrictions? It’s mostly politics. Politicians fear that voters may judge a surge in infections due to easing of border restrictions more harshly than one due to domestic easing. A highly contagious health pandemic originating overseas greatly stokes the temptation to turn inward and retreat behind borders to minimise risks. Facilitated by bias and inertia, succumbing to this temptation is understandable but suboptimal.

While keeping borders closed reduces health risks, it comes at a high price. After almost a year of living with the virus with no end in sight, most countries are finding that they need to find a new balance between risks to health and economy. Once countries decide on a desired balance, a combination of domestic and border policies to realise the balance becomes critical.

Inconsistencies between policies can result in costs without compensating benefits. It is time to narrow the asymmetry that exists between domestic and border policies, as countries like Singapore and Hong Kong are beginning to do.

Going forward, continuous improvements in testing and tracing mean that border measures could be further eased to spur economic activity without significantly raising health risks. This seems necessary as the world muddles toward an undetermined new normal.

Jayant Menon is a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

A different version of this article earlier appeared in ISEAS Commentary.

The post Time’s up on COVID-19 travel restrictions first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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