The Real COVID 19 Culprit? The WHO.

National and local leaders have been and will continue to be scrutinized, and justly so.  But global institutions deserve the same scrutiny, because COVID-19 isn't a national issue; it's a global one.  As the virus began to leave China, the world looked to the World Health Organization for guidance.  The WHO made some relevant health recommendations, but its inability to see the advantage of closing borders proved essential.  Fears of promoting xenophobia may have prevented the WHO from doing the right thing.

On January 30, a WHO committee made some health suggestions, but in hindsight, this one seems critical: "[t]he Committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available."  The WHO reasoned, "Travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing, medical supply chains and harming economies."  But COVID-19 is spread by traveling, hence the shelter-in-place recommendations.  Sure, it already minimally existed in many nations, but what about the greater influx that would follow as world travel continued?  Given the proclivity of the virus to spread geometrically, even limiting a few dozen carriers into a nation can have a dramatic impact.  Cosmopolitanism reigned when the times required provincialism.

President Trump rejected the WHO's advice with a proclamation on January 31 that restricted travel from China as a means to slow the spread of the virus.  As usual, journalists missed the longer-term significance.  On the same day Trump announced his partial travel ban, CNN responded with a headline: "As the Coronavirus Spreads, Fear Is Fueling Racism and Xenophobia."  Responding to the order, The New York Times focused on merely the economic impact.  In an article titled "Trump Administration restricts entry into US from China," the NYT writes, "The travel disruption sent shocks through the stock market and rattled industries that depend on the flow of goods and people between the world's two largest economies."  Rather than describe any health benefits, the New York Times emphasized the economic consequences.  Why is the stock market spiraling?  Trump's policies — in this case, aggressive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 by restricting entry from China.

One journalist described how the ban directly affected her.  A February 3 headline from the Charlotte Observer read: "How Trump's Panicky Coronavirus Travel Ban Cost Me $4,000 in 2 Hours to Save My Job."  Lamenting that she was awoken early to a barrage of text messages the morning of the proclamation, the author, as a way to criticize Trump's restrictions, cites Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist with Johns Hopkins, who insisted that "[b]anning travel from China is unlikely to keep the new coronavirus out of the United States, especially as the geographic footprint of the epidemic continues to rapidly expand."  Even on the surface, this doesn't seem rational.  Yes, banning people from China won't keep the virus out of the United States, but neither will shelter-in-place or social distancing keep it out of Los Angeles and New York.  The goal is to curb the spread of the virus.  Limiting movement achieves this.  How could banning infected people from China to the United States in late January not slow the spread of the virus (albeit not completely stop it)?

Using some logical thought shows this: imagine two societies represented by Italy and Germany.  And imagine that 1% of Italy's population has COVID-19 and 0.1% of Germany's population has the virus.  How can any rational person argue "since the virus already exists in Germany, it doesn't matter if people from Italy go there"?  Of course it matters.  Given that scenario, if merely ten thousand people enter Germany, one hundred are likely to carry the virus to Germany and are more likely to encounter and therefore infect a previously uninfected person than had they stayed in Italy.  This limits the spread of the virus.  Moreover, the main means of traveling from one country to another — trains and airplanes ­— facilitates the spread due to the close proximity of people in these environments.  The mere act of traveling internationally puts more people at risk.  This doesn't take expertise in public health.  It just takes rational thought.

The WHO never grasped this.  It never advocated travel bans.  It had one final chance to advocate travel bans on February 29 but refused, although it equivocated.  The declaration reads: "WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks[.] ... However, in certain circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with few international connections and limited response capacities" (emphasis added).  Some concessions, but a critical opportunity was again missed.

Finally, in mid-March, countries around the world began changing course and aggressively shutting their borders, irrespective of where their leadership fell on the political spectrum.  Trump took the lead, restricting travel from Europe on March 11, at least for non-U.S. citizens.  (It would have been better if he had done it two weeks sooner.)  Initially, the move was criticized.  Angela Merkel replied to Trump hours later proclaiming, "We in Germany, in any case, are of the opinion that border closures are not an appropriate response to the challenge."  Time Magazine replied on March 12, "'What Is He Afraid Of?' Trump's European Travel Ban Prompts Scorn in China."  A March 13 Atlantic headline reads: "The Corona Virus's Xenophobic Problem: As the Coronavirus Spreads across the Globe, so Too Does Racism."

Yet four days after slamming Trump, Merkel closed Germany's borders to most nations.  On March 16, even the European Union closed borders for thirty days to slow the coronavirus pandemic.  An E.U. commission declared, "In the current circumstances, with the coronavirus now widespread throughout the EU, the external border regime offers the opportunity of concerted action among Member States to limit the global spread of the virus."  Technically, the travel ban would have been more effective before the coronavirus was widespread in the E.U.  At least there were concessions that closing borders slows the spread of the virus.

Latin American countries agreed.  On March 15, Argentina announced that it was closing its borders to all foreigners for at least two weeks.  Chile essentially did the same thing the next day.  African nations, too, embraced closed borders.  On March 15, the Kenyan government announced the suspension of travelers from most Western nations.  On March 17, Ghana followed.  So did Nigeria on March 18.  This wasn't xenophobia or racism.  It's means to slow the spread of the virus.  If nothing else, it gives more pristine African nations time to prepare.  It all makes sense.

There will be a natural tendency of people to criticize their political leaders because, in practice, we are governed by national and local, not global, governments.  But COVID-19 is a global issue.  The real problem was the WHO.  The health organization routinely criticizes xenophobia, and fear of appearing xenophobic may have prevented them from recommending travel restrictions sooner.  (Joe Biden accused Trump of xenophobia after Trump restricted travel from China.)  Sometimes, humans let beliefs and ideologies cloud rational thought.  Closing borders in an attempt to curb the spread of a virus isn't xenophobic.  It's smart.  Like shelter-in-place (and having more COVID-19 testing kits), none of this would have stopped the spread of the virus, nor could it have been completely applied, but it would have helped — maybe even dramatically. 

The author's book, Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography can be purchased here.  His Twitter account is here.

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