Various governments seem to be playing whack-a-mole with travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines in the recent COVID-19 epidemic. First Chinese residents were banned from numerous countries. Afterwards travel bans expanded to South Korea, Japan, Iran and most recently Italy. Yet despite all the travel restrictions, the virus managed to successfully spread out all across the globe.

So why continue with the practice of restricting foreign travel, especially when the virus has already been identified to be spreading at the local level? E.g. why doesn't the US remove travel restrictions on Chinese visitors, given that the virus has already been detected in numerous states?

Update: There are now 10 thousand official cases in the US, but travel restrictions are still in place for some reason.

  • Downvoters care to explain? – JonathanReez Mar 6 at 22:21
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    I didn't downvote but you've been around long enough and have enough rep. not to write a push question. And it's one based on a false equivalence between "doesn't work" and "not 100% effective." – richardb Mar 6 at 22:29
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    I will explain. You are thinking that because some cases have come though despite the travel restrictions that means they are completely ineffective. That's not necessarily the case. – DJClayworth Mar 6 at 22:29
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    An answer is probably going to be that while quarantines don't stop the spread of a virus, they do slow the spread of a virus, giving you time to ramp up precautions and health care. Whether that's the administration's official rationale is anyone's guess... – jeffronicus Mar 6 at 22:32
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    @JonathanReez Reasonable question. Some societal factors, local health care must play a role. I do recall quarantines of incoming travelers being seen as counterproductive by U.S. health officials during the Ebola epidemic, since they would deter U.S. health personnel from traveling to Africa and helping stop the epidemic there. – jeffronicus Mar 6 at 22:39

While it has clearly been shown by the virility of the virus so far that travel restrictions will not stop the inevitable community spread of the illness, and that their effectiveness as impeding the spread of the virus is small, the aim of the policy is no longer to stop the virus, but to delay it. This was confirmed as current policy in the UK's response to the virus by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, on March 5th.

There are a few reasons why this is the goal of many governments. Firstly, if the peak of the pandemic can be delayed, this allows plans to be put in place for management of the crisis. For example, in the UK, plans have been floated that would allow final year medical students and trainee doctors to take on hospital duties during the nine week period that the virus is currently predicted to have the highest effect on the NHS, in order to mitigate the strain on the service.

Secondly, delaying the spread of the virus allows time for a vaccine to be developed. While research on this is progressing quickly, it will still take time for the vaccine to pass clinical trials and be approved for human usage. In addition, as @Patricia Shanahan points out in the comments, the effectiveness of existing drugs already approved for treating similar respiratory diseases can be evaluated, which could be ready sooner than developing brand new drugs or a vaccine.

Finally, as health services are acknowledged as being under the most strain during the winter months, the best time for the pandemic to peak would be in the middle of summer.

To this end, the policy of travel bans, while having been shown to be relatively ineffective at preventing the spread of the disease outright, is being used to delay the spread of the virus as much as possible, to allow national governments to prepare for the full impact of the peak of the predicted pandemic.

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    In addition to the above, drugs that are already approved for other conditions are being tested for effectiveness against the virus. They could be ready sooner than new drugs or vaccines. Yet another reason to delay as much as possible. – Patricia Shanahan Mar 6 at 22:47
  • @PatriciaShanahan great point; added this to the answer. – CDJB Mar 6 at 22:53

In addition to CDJB's answer, there's an extra reason to delay, delay, delay.

During the SARS outbreak I read, I believe it was John Barry's 1918 Influenza book. A good read, on a number of levels, including the laborious birth of non-quack Western medicine.

He made the point that the influenza became progressively less lethal. I.e. you had better chance of survival a year or so into the epidemic than at the start. Viruses face evolutionary pressure not to kill, or at least not quickly, since they entirely rely on live hosts to be pumping out duplicates.

Something like AIDS doesn't mind so much, since it kills over a number of years so there's a lot of potential to pass on infections. Early syphilis was also more lethal, IIRC. In a way, Ebola is a stupidly lethal and quick virus.

So this virus may very well follow the same path of progressively lesser lethality.

Barry, if it was Barry I read, also repeatedly made the point that quarantines and avoidance of group gatherings did help, and quite a lot.

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  • Sure, but if your country already has hundreds of cases (like the US does), what's the point of continuing to ban flights from China? At that point it's a drop in the bucket. – JonathanReez Mar 7 at 6:55
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    Supposedly China is now facing reverse issues, where they are getting more new cases from outside, so, if you are competently managing cases in your country, it might make sense not to import them from countries which don't. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 7 at 6:59
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    I am somewhat doubtful that China is so good at managing myself and they do have 70-80k cases, so I don't mind if they are kept at arms length for a while. If and when countries have 1000s and 10000s of cases internally, then, yeah, you're probably right. We're not there yet. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 7 at 7:04
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    @JonathanReez The official count as of 3/7 is 167 cases in the US, a little less than "hundreds" and much less than the 4600 in Italy, 4700 in Iran, or 80k+ in China. – doneal24 Mar 7 at 17:47
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    @doneal24: Much less = maybe two weeks behind. In Germany, we went from less than 60 a week ago to about 800 as of today. 800 is what Italy had a week ago, 2 weeks ago they had 79 cases. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 7 at 22:00

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