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COVID-19 travel restrictions based on misinformation, racism: health law scholars


OTTAWA — Global health law experts say dozens of countries — including the United States and Australia — are breaking international law by imposing travel restrictions during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

In a commentary published in The Lancet medical journal, 16 health law scholars argue that the restrictions on travellers who’ve been in China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, are driven by “fear, misinformation, racism and xenophobia,” rather than science.

And they say those are a violation of the International Health Regulations, legally binding rules meant to ensure that countries don’t take needless measures to control the spread of an infectious disease that end up harming people or discouraging countries from reporting new public health risks.

The World Health Organization has advised against travel restrictions during the COVID-19 outbreak on the grounds that they do more harm than good.

Yet Steven Hoffman, senior author of The Lancet commentary and a professor at York University’s faculty of health, says 72 countries have imposed restrictions anyway.

And two-thirds of those countries have not reported their actions to the WHO, which in itself is another violation of international law.

“Responses that are anchored in fear, misinformation, racism and xenophobia will not save us from outbreaks like COVID-19,” the scholars argue.

“Upholding the rule of international law is needed now more than ever.”

In the short term, the scholars argue that travel restrictions prevent needed supplies from getting into regions affected by an outbreak, slow the international public health response, “stigmatize entire populations and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us.”

Over the longer term, the restrictions encourage other countries to similarly ignore international law during future outbreaks.

“Effective global governance is not possible when countries cannot depend on each other to comply with international agreements.”

In an interview from Geneva, where he is working with the WHO on the international response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Hoffman praised Canada for not imposing any travel restrictions on people coming from China.


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