Nancy Jecker on the ethics of COVID-19 travel rules

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on
People wait at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Nov. 26, 2021, as many nations moved to stop air travel from the country. AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Nancy Jecker examines the ethics of COVID-19 travel rules in different countries after the World Health Organization labeled the Omicron variant a “variant of concern.” As of November 26, 2021, the U.S. and other countries have banned travelers from countries in southern Africa where scientist first recognized the variant. Additionally, the U.S. requires non-citizens arriving by plane to be fully vaccinated and everyone to provide a negative COVID-19 test.

One argument in favor of travel bans holds that they could slow the spread of the virus and buy time while scientists learn more. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease advisor, reportedly told the president it would take two weeks to have definitive answers about omicron. A travel ban gives scientists more time to assess how well existing vaccines fare against new variants, and to begin reformulating vaccines if needed.

An ethical argument for vaccine requirements is that people should be held accountable for their choices, including refusing vaccination. Yet throughout much of the world, particularly poorer regions, people cannot access vaccines. On average, only 6% of people in low-income countries have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 74% in rich countries.

Critics of travel bans and vaccine requirements point out that such controls are hardly foolproof. There is scant evidence that travel restrictions reduce disease spread, particularly if they are not timed right and paired with other prevention strategies. Meanwhile, many studies have highlighted the negative consequences of international travel restrictions, such as xenophobia and mental health concerns. 

Read the entire article on The Conversation: “Who’s in? Who’s out? The ethics of COVID-19 travel rules.”