The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak could shave $200 billion from the global economy this year, mostly due to severe travel restrictions and quarantines in China. The problem: such measures likely won’t work at containing the disease, and in some cases, could make the outbreak worse.
“Historically when there are heavy-handed measures it has backfired in some way,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The most severe response is China’s lockdown of Wuhan and other cities and neighborhoods in an attempt to contain the disease, preventing travel in and out. Additionally, 60 countries have implemented broad travel and immigration restrictions against China. On the non-government side, airlines have curtailed routes and major industry conferences, such as the Mobile World Congress, have been cancelled.
Measures like these are a big part of why Moody’s Analytics estimates the outbreak could lower the world’s GDP growth by as much as 0.3% – which would be well over $200 billion. Of course, if they worked to contain the outbreak and save lives, that’s a small price to pay. The problem is that they don’t.
The problem with lockdowns like the one in Wuhan, Nuzzo says, is that it’s hard to maintain services and quality of life for the people inside. What’s more, it can backfire and make the spread of disease worse, because people will be put into closer contact than they otherwise might have. The better option, says Nuzzo, is a more nuanced approach, focused on finding the most severe cases, working to prevent transmission by focusing on encouraging better hygiene and reporting symptoms to doctors.
The cruise ship Diamond Princess shows this problem on a microscale. The 3,700 passengers on the ship, which is operated by Princess Cruise Lines, was placed under a complete quarantine by Japanese health officials in Japan’s Yokahama port earlier this month. The quarantine began because ten passengers were infected with the coronavirus.
Typically, travelers who might pose a disease risk would be screened and allowed to leave if they weren’t infected. In this case, everyone was told to remain on board rather, rather than disembark to be screened. Now the coronavirus has spread to over 200 passengers and crew in just over a week.
Aiming to curb the illness’ spread, which has infected over 67,000 people and killed over 1,500, air carriers have slashed flights, reducing the number of available seats to and from China by nearly two-thirds, according to air travel analysis firm OAG. The disruption to travel could lower global airline revenues by up to $5 billion in this quarter alone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that travel restrictions of this nature should be short in duration. If adopted at all, they should only last as long as needed to implement plans to screen at-risk passengers for illness. That way, the disease can be contained and infected people treated. But once those measures are in place, WHO advises such bans should be lifted.
The logic of a travel ban seems pretty straightforward: keep people from traveling in and out of an area where there’s a disease, and fewer people will get it. But science shows that it isn’t that simple: a 2014 analysis of multiple studies by WHO showed that travel restrictions do little to stop the spread of flu outbreaks. This applies to actions like cancelling conferences, too. For example, a study of the 2009 flu pandemic, which began in Mexico, found that airline travel between the U.S. and Mexico declined by 40% —mostly voluntary, but that reduced travel had virtually no impact on the spread of the flu.
Right now, WHO has launched a $675 million plan to contain the spread of COVID-19, focused on countries that don’t have systems in pace to detect and handle an epidemic. This involves resources improving coordination and scaling up healthcare systems so they can detect patients and properly isolate and care for them.
International cooperation in fighting a disease crucially relies on trust between governments, and it also relies on trust in the government by its people. This is where harder, more restrictive measures do the most damage.
In 2014, then-CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden argued that travel bans can backfire, because they make countries less likely to report outbreaks for fear they’ll lose economic benefits from trade and tourism. Additionally, they make it harder for international authorities to track the spread of a disease.
On the domestic side, Nuzzo adds that harsh measures make people see public health authorities as law enforcement, rather than a resource to help people. As a result, she says, people will hide their symptoms from doctors to avoid what’s seen as punishment, and they won’t trust the government to contain a disease.
“Once we start to worry about that trust being eroded, then I think we start to lose the fight against the epidemic,” she says.