Vox: It turns out we were wrong about the utility of travel bans to stop disease

There was a tweet floating around late last night which pointed out how an author at Vox appeared to be directly contradicting herself on the same issue over a period of months:

The easy angle here is hypocrisy but I think the real story is actually more interesting and more revealing about the way journalists at Vox and elsewhere channel the views of researchers and experts into firm conclusions only later to admit the issue isn’t so cut and dry.

Author Julia Belluz first wrote about this topic back in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The piece stated, “we know from past experience that airport screening and travel bans are more about quelling the public’s fears and political expediency than offering any real boost to public health security.” At the time Vox promoted that piece as one that showed then-President Obama was right:

The issue of travel bans came up again at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and Vox once again published a piece arguing travel bans were a mistake: “The evidence on travel bans for diseases like coronavirus is clear: They don’t work.” And once again, there was a political subtext to the story:

The 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic was met with calls by US politicians, including then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Donald Trump, to close off travel with West Africa…

…it would be one thing if there were strong evidence that travel bans work to stop the spread of the disease. Instead, “Travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing, medical supply chains and harming economies,” said the World Health Organization director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

One person who jumped on these travel ban claims was Joe Biden who wrote an opinion piece for USA Today on Jan. 27, 2020 which was headlined “Trump is worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak.” That piece cited Trump’s previous support for travel bans during the Ebola outbreak as evidence he didn’t know what he was talking about. [emphasis added]

I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. He called President Barack Obama a “dope” and “incompetent” and railed against the evidence-based response our administration put in place — which quelled the crisis and saved hundreds of thousands of lives — in favor of reactionary travel bans that would only have made things worse…

Pandemic diseases are a prime example of why international cooperation is a requirement of leadership in 2020. Diseases do not stop at borders. They cannot be thwarted by building a wall. We cannot keep ourselves safe without helping to keep others safe as well and without enlisting the help of other nations in return.

Jump forward 15 more months and Vox published a piece today headlined “Vietnam defied the experts and sealed its border to keep Covid-19 out. It worked.” The new story admits that all that previous certainty about how pointless it was to use travel bans to fight disease was actually founded on very little in the way of evidence:

Vietnam is now among a few countries upending the global health community’s “almost religious belief that travel restrictions are bad,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health law professor who helped write the international law governing how countries should deal with outbreaks.

“I have now realized,” Gostin added, “that our belief about travel restrictions was just that — a belief. It was evidence-free.”

When it comes to Vox’s own role in spreading the “evidence-free” conclusions, the author is a bit less forthcoming. Notice there are no links to the earlier pieces in that first paragraph [emphasis added]:

During the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola epidemic and early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I co-wrote popular stories detailing this evidence and arguing against the use of such restrictions. And I wasn’t alone.

Bill Gates pointed out that then-President Donald Trump’s approach to Covid-19 travel bans probably made the US epidemic worse. The WHO’s International Health Regulations, an international law governing 196 countries’ responses to outbreaks, says countries should “avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade” and follow the WHO’s expert advice. With every global health emergency declared after SARS, the WHO has not recommended travel restrictions.

At the same time, speaking out against travel bans had become synonymous with opposing nationalism and wall-building, said Lee. “There were these progressive, human rights values that were upheld by not using travel measures.”

But it’s now clear that the well-meaning advice and previous research findings didn’t match up with the situation the world was facing in early 2020. The new virus was different — more contagious and harder to stop. SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted prior to the onset of symptoms, if they ever occur — while with SARS and Ebola, for example, people are only contagious when they are very ill or symptomatic.

I added the bold to the text because I wanted to highlight that even Vox is willing to acknowledge there was a partisan subtext to all this expertise about travel bans. The right kind of people were against them which probably helps explain why Vox was so eager to write about it when it did (Obama was right in 2014, Trump was wrong in 2020). It all sounded really good for the years Vox was pushing it. It just turned out it wasn’t true. In fact sealing borders did work in some cases (along with other measures). In retrospect I guess that means the political subtext surrounding the issue was wrong as well.

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