Steven J. Hoffman is the director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law, and political science at York University. Roojin Habibi is a research fellow with the Global Strategy Lab and a PhD student at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
When disease outbreaks strike, countries are too quick to close borders, ban travel and mount trade barriers. These actions, implemented by at least 72 countries in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, not only isolate communities, cripple economies and disincentivize countries from reporting new cases of the virus. Many of these travel and trade restrictions also violate the International Health Regulations – the legally-binding treaty that governs how 196 countries contain the international spread of disease – thereby undermining the world’s public health system and our rules-based world order in the process.
Published Thursday with 14 other global health law scholars, our article in The Lancet medical journal explains that this situation is only the most recent instance of countries’ responses to disease outbreaks being driven by fear, misinformation, racism and xenophobia rather than science or international law. The International Health Regulations give countries and the World Health Organization (WHO) a legally binding and science-based blueprint for working together to stop the international spread of disease while avoiding unnecessary interference with global travel and trade. To achieve this balance, the regulations place limits on the restrictions that countries can impose against people and goods coming from disease-affected areas.
According to the regulations, countries can only restrict trade or travel during outbreaks if such actions meet three conditions: They are supported by science, proportionate to the risks involved and respectful of human rights. These limits not only protect people and economies from undue harm, they also ensure that the next unlucky country to find disease within its borders is not disincentivized from reporting that outbreak to international authorities.
The trade and travel restrictions currently in place around the coronavirus do not meet these three conditions. The science around the use of travel restrictions during this coronavirus outbreak points against them; at best, these restrictions will only delay its spread by a few days. Second, these restrictions are not proportionate to the risks involved because there are far better ways of containing this outbreak, including WHO-recommended screening at airports, community surveillance and public communication. Third, broadly indiscriminate travel restrictions violate human rights because they unfairly discriminate against those who appear East Asian. These restrictions look more like racism and xenophobia than anything else.
When it comes to disease outbreaks, Canada has not always been one of the good guys. Back in 2014, Canada was one of the first countries in the world to impose illegal travel restrictions against West Africans who were facing an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola. The government of the day argued that it would rather be safe than sorry. Yet Canada was not safer – travel restrictions don’t work – and we wound up undermining the international public health response to that outbreak, disincentivizing other countries from reporting new cases of Ebola and providing cover for other countries to impose similar illegal travel restrictions. Finally, in picking-and-choosing which international treaties to follow, Canada encouraged other countries to do the same, thereby undermining the rules-based global governance system that has benefited our country for more than a century.
Today, in 2020, we’ve witnessed a different approach. The Canadian government’s response to the current coronavirus outbreak has been measured, science-based and fully in compliance with our country’s legal obligations under the International Health Regulations.
But will Canada stay the course? In making such decisions, governments must recognize that disease outbreaks are a repeat game: They are frequent, and they are inevitable. What we do to other countries today will come back to haunt us when the next outbreak is on our soil, as was the case when Canadians faced Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. In that respect, each government’s response to each new disease outbreak is an audit of our ability to work together, comply with international law, plan for the future and solve problems that know no borders.
We failed our last test, with Ebola. Let’s not do so again. The Canadian government must withstand political pressure to be seen as “doing more” during this coronavirus outbreak. The world needs Canada to lead by example in demonstrating how the best outbreak response is one that is supported by science, proportionate to the risk and respectful of human rights.
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