COVID-19: Calculating the duration and effectiveness of non-essential international travel bans

Travel banBy Madison Scholar, CIB Alumni, currently living in Europe
Date: 21 March 2020


For countries that are currently enforcing strict national lockdowns, such as Italy, Spain, and previously China, it can be stated with low confidence that non-essential international travel bans will last for at least three to five months. If countries like the US and the UK, which have not yet imposed strict measures, go into a national lockdown within the next week, it can be stated with low confidence that the travel ban will last for the next three to five months. However, if such countries choose not to implement lockdowns, it can be stated with low confidence that travel bans will last no more than two months. For countries that have seen COVID-19 cases, but have not been majorly effected, nor have implement lockdowns, such as many of the Latin American and African countries, it can be stated with low confidence that travel bans will last no longer than two months. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the outbreak of the coronavirus and its resulting illness, COVID-19, to be a global pandemic (World Health Organization 2020). The virus originated in China and virtually spread across the entire globe, as the number of countries with no reported cases is rapidly diminishing. According to the WHO situation report on 19 March, over 209,839 cases and 8778 deaths have been recorded worldwide, with 828 of the deaths being in the last 24 hours, with these numbers changing by the minute (World Health Organization 2020b). A combination of public disbelief, media disinformation, and lack of urgency in governmental response has left the much of the world uncertain as the pubic health crisis crosses into uncharted territory.


Although pandemics are not a new phenomenon, COVID-19 has sparked an unprecedented panic throughout the globe. In comparison to previous pandemics of the 21st century, such as the Swine Flu, with 200,000 deaths (2009-2010), and the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) with 774 deaths (2002-2003), coronavirus currently finds itself in the middle of the death toll (LePan 2020). However, this is not because the disease is less dangerous; rather it is projected that the world is only seeing the earlier phases of the outbreak and many areas lack proper testing capabilities. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that a maximum of 214 million Americans will contract the disease in spurts of outbreaks over the course of the year (Fink 2020).

It is important to mention the main models of containment that are seen in major regions of the world. Beginning with Asia, we can see that China, Taiwan, and Macau have all implemented a militaristic lockdown of their populations, which can be said to have been effective. At its peak on 25 January, reports showed thousands of people testing positive per day; after the lockdown, numbers gradually dropped to only dozens per day (Cyranoski 2020). However, these numbers are questionable as residents and civil servants in Wuhan and other major Chinese cities have been trying to get the attention of visiting leaders saying that “it’s all fake” in reference to the number of cases being recorded daily (Laden 2020). The WHO has praised China for implementing such successful measures, but some argue that “the delay of China to act is probably responsible for this world event”, meaning that the lockdown should have taken place at least three weeks earlier (Cyranoski 2020). With that in mind, experts urge countries facing the “first wave” of infections to act preventatively, again implying that this might only be the early stage of the outbreak (Cryanoski 2020). In Europe, Italy has also taken extreme measures to restrict movement, but has not seen the same success, as is already exceeding China’s death toll at 3,405 (BBC 2020). This might be due to the country having the world’s second oldest population and interactive household structures (Simon 2020). However, Chinese medical professionals argue that it is because the lockdown is “not strict enough”, urging Italian officials to utilize the military to enforce mobilization restrictions (Di Donato et al 2020).

In the US, Washington State has seen over 1,402 cases and 85 deaths, while West Virginia has only seen 8 cases with no deaths (Smith et al 2020). These numbers are almost certainly open to dispute, due to lack of testing kits available in every state. But comparing the preventative action of West Virginia with that of Washington shows noticeable results (Smith 2020). Both states closed schools on 17 March; the difference is that Washington observed 568 cases before closing schools, while West Virginia closed its schools immediately after seeing its first case (Drew 2020). The federal government has not yet issued a nationwide lockdown, but has announced a State of Emergency in order to direct material support onto healthcare workers and aid distribution (Hennigan 2020).

Leaders across the globe have issued non-essential travel restrictions and closed their countries’ borders to foreigners in response. However, multiple research studies explain that travel bans are not effective in preventing the transmission of coronavirus, rather they just delay the amount of time it takes for the disease to spread by approximately four days (Cyranoski 2020). Essentially, travel bans only work in combination with more stringent preventative measures. Models show that even if 90 percent of international travel were to be stopped, it would still slow the spread only moderately (Cyranoski 2020). The WHO has also spoken out against travel bans, warning that they could hinder the ability to distribute resources, harm industries, and prevent collaborative aid (Cyranoski 2020).

Recent Developments

In the US, New York, California, and Illinois state officials have ordered the mandatory lockdown of over 70 million residents beginning Sunday, to include the US’s largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (Sullivan and Winfield 2020). On 14 March, President Trump implemented a travel ban on 26 European countries, extended the ban to the UK a few days later, and mutually closed the borders with Mexico and Canada. Asian and European countries have applied similar measures, closing their borders to outsiders as well (Sacedo and Cherelus 2020). The US State Department issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory, stating that US citizens should return home unless they are prepared to stay abroad for an indefinite period of time (US State Department 2020). European countries have also started closing borders averaging until around mid-April unless extended, with the exception of Italy which has closed its borders indefinitely (Sacedo and Cherelus 2020).

China, considered “ground zero” for coronavirus, has lifted the majority of its lockdowns and is allowing employment and schooling to resume (Yeung et al 2020). Out of the 1,119 highways that were shut during the lockdown, all except two have opened again, allowing domestic travel to carry on as usual (Yeung et al 2020). Washington State, coined as a “ground zero” point for the US, also appears to be leveling out according to University of Washington statistics (Rantala 2020). Washington was the first state to record a coronavirus case, reporter Trace Gallagher quotes “overall, US numbers are rising but the first state affected might be seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel” (Rantala 2020).

Using the US as a focal point, it can be stated that the travel ban has significantly disrupted the global economy. CEO Roger Dow explains that temporary limitations will impact the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel (D’Souza 2020). Airlines will be particularly impacted, as the ban will affect over 17,000 scheduled flights over the next 30 days and cost an estimated $21.1 billion (D’Souza 2020). Tourism accounts for nearly 30 percent of overseas travel, and a substantial part of industry in the US (D’Souza 2020). The sudden crash in tourism- and travel-related industry is being compared to that of 9/11; however, aviation industry expert Loizos Heracleous warns, “that was an event, whereas the coronavirus is a live process” (Johnson 2020).


Some researchers have suggested models for predicting the peak of coronavirus differing by country, based on the aggressiveness and timeliness of the intervention. However, we argue that the peak of the outbreak will not have as much influence on the international travel ban as the media proclaims. Rather, it depends on which country decides to go into lockdown, and when. But, for the purpose of this analysis, we will compare the results of China’s model with the projections of the US model. Most of China’s major cities, including Wuhan, went into lockdown on January 23, with its peak occurring just two days later, on 25 January (Cyranoski 2020). The Chinese government imposed an extremely strict national quarantine during that time, which will be labeled as “aggressive”. Although the government should have acted sooner, 53 days under lockdown has, at least for now, mostly stopped the spread, allowing China to lift the domestic travel ban. Many media outlets have been comparing the stabilization of China to future predictions for the US, which cannot be done without caveats. The US differs from China in that social distancing measures have not been strictly implemented until the past few days, and the geographical scale is more spread out. We will label this intervention as “moderate”, whereas implementing a full nationwide lockdown and enacting marshal law would be labeled as “aggressive”. According to The New York Times estimation model, if the US were to continue to implement moderate procedures within major US cities and populated areas in the next week, coronavirus would hit its peak around July (Kristof and Thompson 2020). The reason this timespan might differ so much from the Chinese model is because China enacted the lockdown right before its peak in January and the 53-day quarantine allowed time for the virus to take its natural course and get through the backside of the curve without adding to the number of cases. The exponentially-stretched timespan is also due to the much larger geographical scale of the US. The Chinese model can be compared to the US model after the peak has occurred, meaning that it would take about two months to return to normal after July. This analysis is based on one of many models produced by researchers and, as stated previously, data reliability is low to moderate.

Regardless of when the peak occurs, we must look at whether or not the travel ban is even working and if it is worth the financial damage that it is causing. Italy was the first country in Europe to ban flights to and from China, yet it still remains the most affected by the virus (Singh 2020). Experts argue that “once a disease has begun circulating within a community, banning outsiders is mostly futile” (Singh 2020). Banning foreign travel only works when two conditions are met: namely, when it is put in place before a community has been infected, or when it is paired with aggressive intervention after a community has already been infected (Singh 2020). For example, countries allowing their citizens to return home from abroad if they choose, exemplifies loyalty; however, the coronavirus does not choose whom it infects based on nationality. Having citizens return from abroad without the ability to test them at the border might defeat the purpose of a travel ban. Travel bans only work if they are implemented long before the virus infects the community. For example, Ecuador has restricted any and all travel regardless of citizenship for the next 21 days (Salecedo and Cherelus 2020). However, this failed because the virus had infected the community before the ban was put in place: 400 COVID-19 cases were identified in Ecuador in the past week (Reuters 2020). For this reason, countries not implementing lockdowns have less of a reason to restrict travel. Rather, it would be more beneficial to focus efforts into increasing testing capabilities.


World leaders have been extremely unpredictable with their plans to contain the virus, making it difficult to estimate when its peak will be. However, based on the evidence provided, which demonstrates that travel bans are not beneficial in the long run, we can delineate four main scenarios. Rather than estimating how long travel bans would last for, we may look towards how long it will take for officials to implement health precautions at the borders; then travel bans could be lifted in certain areas.

As stated previously, there is no point in restricting travel unless the country is taking measures to quarantine its own citizens. For countries that are currently enforcing strict measures, such as Italy, Spain, and previously China, it can be stated with low confidence that international travel bans will last at least three to five months. This is because, if the trend seen in China continues, we could estimate at least two to three months of lockdown, and one to two months of recovery. This is stated with low confidence because of the rapidly changing statistics, unpredictability of world leaders’ decisions, and changing environmental factors.

With a world economy heavily reliant on travel, it is not feasible for the international community to impose travel bans unless countries have already implemented national lockdowns. Two scenarios could derive from this: if countries such as the US and the UK, which have not yet imposed strict measures at the national level, go into lockdown within the next week, it can be stated with low confidence that the travel ban will last for the next three to five months. However, if such countries choose not to implement lockdowns, it can be stated with low confidence that travel bans will last no more than two months. This is because travel bans do not work unless they are paired with other measures, it would not be worth the economic destruction to continue the travel bans since the virus has already been introduced in the community. Finally, for countries that have seen cases but have not been majorly affected yet, nor have implemented lockdowns, such as many Latin American and African countries, it can be stated with low confidence that travel bans will last no longer than two months. Since the communities have already been infected, many of the smaller economies are not able to support a travel ban for extended periods of time; however, this heavily relies on the major Western powers’ decisions as these powers tend to set precedence for others to follow.


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