Covid-19 Travelers Aren't All Dubai Jet-Setters

Globe-trotting tourists used to be “flight-shamed” for their CO2 footprint. Now it is the struggle against SARS-CoV-2 that’s put a target on their back. Whether it’s hypocrite politicians sneaking off for sunny vacations while urging the public to stay home, or social-media influencers flaunting trips to Dubai, the sight of a Panama hat or wheelie suitcase is provoking outrage.

A lot of the anger is justified, especially in countries living under some form of lockdown with foreign travel discouraged or heavily restricted. Nothing undermines public trust in policy like people using dental appointments in Spain to get around restrictions on flying out of Dublin. In the tug of war between vaccinations and variants, letting imported infections go unchecked is the kind of deadly error countries want to avoid. Travel is, after all, the “hallmark” of how Covid-19 spreads, as one expert puts it.

Still, despite their logic, travel restrictions are very tricky to get right. When the coronavirus went global last year, border closures turned out to be a mixed bag, their effectiveness decreasing over time and ultimately failing to really move the needle on cases. Bans were either sieve-like or applied so haphazardly they seemed to do more harm than good. It wasn’t just the Cancun crowd complaining; European workers protested over curbs at the German-Polish border.

Now there is a real risk of repeating these mistakes. Germany this week partially closed its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol, ostensibly to keep new more-infectious variants at bay. With roughly every second person reportedly denied entry to Germany as a result, the fear is that this has gone beyond catching irresponsible holidaymakers heading for the ski slopes — truck drivers and essential workers are getting caught in the crossfire. Road transport lobby IRU said the flow of goods was in “chaos.” German carmakers have warned their supply chain is at risk of breaking down. It’s deja-vu, and France fears it may be the next target.

Some will say the benefit of fewer potential infections is worth any cost. However, this isn’t realistic in all cases, especially interconnected European Union exporters like Germany. The B.1.1.7 variant is already there, making up about 22% of new cases compared with just 6% two weeks ago. Talk of preventing “further intrusion” is very optimistic. There may be little epidemiological reward and high economic costs in squeezing border traffic, especially considering Germany’s interdependence with its neighbors in a post-pandemic recovery.

Even Asian countries that have kept a tight grip on infections are no strangers to the unintended consequences of severe travel curbs. Hong Kong’s abrupt extension of its quarantine period for travelers to three weeks from two has driven hotel prices up and hurt low-income domestic workers, whose employers are less willing to pay for their stay. Given most incubation periods for Covid-19 are two weeks, some scientists say that while quarantines do make sense as a policy, the extra seven days may well be overkill.

Still, there are ways to make restrictions fairer without handing the virus a victory. Closing loopholes within travel curbs is one. There is no sense in exempting some countries from traveler quarantines, for example, given the virus doesn’t respect passports. Better calculating trade-offs is another. Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, suggests some interconnected countries might weigh a shorter quarantine — say, 7 days — if it got them 90% of the way toward the targeted result.

Restrictions would also benefit from clearer communication and timing. A December study published in the Lancet found that travel restrictions are most effective in places with already-low infection rates where imported cases might trigger a new epidemic wave — such as New Zealand or China — and least effective in countries where rates are high. Co-author Mark Jit of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine says that means countries need to keep their guard up precisely at the time they’re keenest to let it down.

Finally, curbs should be based on data as much as possible, not politics. Preferential treatment of certain countries, no matter how appealing travel bubbles sound, runs the risk of stoking ill will just when trust and cooperation is needed most, according to Joan Costa-Font of the London School of Economics. Take Greece’s recent travel deal with Israel and Cyprus to let the vaccinated travel freely. It’s easy to see why it might annoy other EU members. Speeding up vaccine deployment and managing the virus is probably a more pressing issue than travel deals.

A year on, there is still no easy fix in this pandemic. But some policies can do more harm than good — even if the Panama hat should probably stay on the shelf a while longer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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