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Why Covid-19 Travel Bans Can Do More Harm Than Good


Dr. Joshua Liao discusses how insights from behavioral science can be used to mitigate the unintended consequences of travel bans aimed at controlling Covid-19.


A number of countries have instituted travel bans in response to the emergence of the omicron variant. The intent is laudable: to safeguard residents by reducing spread of a concerning virus while giving scientists more time to learn about it.

But execution matters, and all policies are vulnerable to unintended consequences. In the case of travel bans, they could discourage nations and groups from sharing crucial information about new variants. To prevent these harms and encourage scientific transparency, leaders can use insights from behavioral.

First, leaders should consider how they frame issues that drive policy approaches. As a behavioral principle, framing describes how people tend to make decisions using the framework within which choices are presented. The phenomenon has been observed in many different situations, and as I have noted previously, can apply to Covid-19 policy.

The insight is not just that framing matters, but that it can drive policy decisions and consequences. In the case of omicron, travel bans were immediately placed on South Africa after its scientists first reported the variant. Those bans have largely remained in place, and are only now starting to be relaxed despite the fact that omicron has been documented in multiple countries.

If fear of punishment encourages silence – particularly about issues that can affect the global community – we will all be worse off.

From a behavioral perspective, this situation belies a policy approach organized around a given framing (that omicron originated from Africa and spread to other regions should be contained) over others (that omicron already existed in multiple regions prior to first documentation in South Africa). A problematic knock-on effect of the former: travel bans applied to a set of African countries but not those on other continents.

Second, leaders should carefully account for long-term incentives created by travel ban policies. However obvious, some of the most foundational lessons about human behavior are that people respond to incentives, and misaligned incentives can prompt misaligned behaviors. Unfortunately, I have observed these dynamics far too often in my health policy and systems work, where well-intended policies can create harm by failing to fully consider downstream incentives.

In the context of Covid-19, travel bans can have severe economic, social and health effects on target regions – consequences that may disproportionately affect low-to-middle-income countries and historically marginalized communities. Ultimately, these disincentives can be strong deterrents to speak up about new variants or other concerning developments. For their part, South African leaders have equated the situation surrounding omicron to scapegoating and punishment for good science.

If fear of punishment encourages silence – particularly about issues that can affect the global community – we will all be worse off. This is particularly true given the strength of available data about travel bans. While there are data suggesting that they may have been helpful for delaying viral spread early in the pandemic, those data also suggest that other measures may have been more effective. More broadly, there is limited evidence for travels bans as a general policy solution.

Given these dynamics, Covid-related travel policies would be better grounded in alternative framings and selectively implemented. For instance, leaders could adopt the framing that until proven otherwise, newly identified variants may have already spread into multiple nations and geographic regions. This orientation would not only curb reflexive travel bans; it could also channel attention to sequencing, surveillance, and reporting as critical measures for capturing the extent of spread. Leaders could then consider certain restrictions alongside other measures such as vaccine or testing requirements.

Ultimately, no single strategy is a panacea against Covid-19, and travel restrictions are not the sole determinants of scientific transparency. In certain areas, vaccine access remains a major issue. But as the world grapples with new viral variants, leaders must anticipate the incentives and consequences of travel bans. One way is to incorporate behavioral insights into policy approach and implementation.

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