The debate over the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is remarkably devoid of hard data comparisons. With President Trump’s decision on Wednesday to expand travel restrictions to the European Union, it is time to evaluate the very different approaches to travel restrictions that the U.S. and the E.U. have taken.
The end of January seems long ago. Until January 30th, the World Health Organization (WHO) explicitly declined to classify the coronavirus (COVID-19) as a global emergency. It urged countries not to restrict travel or trade.
The WHO announcement on travel was partially in response to the U.S. government’s January 27th recommendation that Americans “avoid all non-essential travel to China.” But the U.S. went still further. On January 30th, the State Department warned Americans to completely avoid traveling to China. On January 31st, President Trump suspended the entry of all non-U.S. citizens coming from China.
Only Israel and Australia imposed travel moratoriums as soon as the U.S. did. No European countries acted as quickly to suspend travel, and Canada still doesn’t have a travel ban in place.
Italy and the Czech Republic now have restrictions on direct flights from China, and France has suspended issuing new visas to Chinese. But, as Trump noted on Wednesday night, other European Union countries had few travel restrictions in place, even by the end of February.
Germany only requires that people traveling from China fill out “cards giving information on their flight and stating where they will be staying for the 30 days following landing, as well as where they stayed in China, people they were in contact with and their current health status.” As of the morning of March 11th, the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 case tracker showed that Germany had over 50 percent more confirmed cases than the U.S. – equivalent to an infection rate six times greater than our own.
The U.K. government tells travelers from the Hubei province of China, where COVID-19 originated, that they should voluntarily “Go home or to your destination and then self isolate.” For those traveling from the rest of China, “Travellers do not need to undertake any special measures, but if they develop symptoms they should self-isolate and call NHS 111.” The U.K. has a per capita rate of infection that is almost twice the rate in the U.S.
France, Netherlands, and Spain, with few if any restrictions on travel, have confirmed infection rates that are respectively 8, 7, and 12 times higher. Switzerland’s rate is 23 times higher.
Of course, some countries are testing more thoroughly than others to see who has the disease. A better measure of the true level of infection might be reported death rates, although this data is still not wholly reliable. All of the above European countries, except for Germany, have higher per capita death rates than does the U.S. France and Spain have rates that are 6 and 9 times higher than the U.S. rate. Switzerland’s is four times higher.
Italy’s death rate is by far the worst, with a rate 118 times higher than the rate in the U.S.
It isn’t clear how much of the lower U.S. rate can be attributed to the Trump administration’s quick actions and bucking of WHO recommendations regarding travel, but our overall policy seems to be working relatively well. Our infection and death rates seem to be much lower than those of most other large, similar countries.
Yet, the media immediately jumped on Trump when he imposed these travel restrictions. News outlets that critiqued Trump for overreacting are now the same ones claiming that he is not doing enough. Market Watch complained on February 3: “‘No Chinese allowed’: Racism and fear are now spreading along with the coronavirus.” If people had been worried about the appearance of racism, the U.S. coronavirus situation would now be much more grave.
Others condemned the U.S. for ignoring the WHO’s travel advice. A Foreign Policy article criticized the administration for having “sabotaged America’s coronavirus response” and acting in “clear defiance of WHO’s admonishment against restricting travel to and from China.”
Even as recently as this week, Trump has been attacked by the media and former Vice President and leading Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden as “racist” for retweeting a reference to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” Given the virus originated in China, this seems like a simple factual reference to the origins of the virus. The Spanish Flu got its name after the country where it originated. Ebola was named after a river in Arica. The Zika virus name came from a forest in Africa. But no one accuses the media of being “racist” and anti-black every time they refer to the Ebola or Zika viruses.
Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy. The critics haven’t even provided evidence that other countries have done a better job. More deaths are clearly coming, but the United States has fared relatively well so far.