Illustration: Craig Stephens
by James Liang
by James Liang

Coronavirus travel bans: shutting the door on China now will hurt goodwill and cooperation in the future

  • A blanket travel ban on Chinese nationals is too radical and treats all of China as an epidemic-stricken region
  • Such an attitude will only compromise cooperation with China, and turn off Chinese visitors, including overseas students unable to return to their universities in time

In response to the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), at least 62 countries have implemented immigration restrictions to help contain the infection globally. There are some striking disparities in the scope of their restrictions.

A list by the consular department of China’s foreign affairs ministry divides these restrictions into three main categories.

Category I restrictions are the strictest and bar entry to all Chinese nationals and foreign nationals who have been in China over the past fortnight, with measures that include the refusal of visas and quarantine. North Korea, for example, also specifically bars government delegations. The other countries in this category include the United States, Australia, Singapore, Russia and Mongolia.
Category II restrictions apply only to travellers who have recently been to Hubei. Japan and South Korea, for example, bars foreigners who have been to the province. Given that each of these countries have more confirmed cases of the new coronavirus than the US, this policy seems relatively moderate. Malaysia, too, has barred Hubei residents from entering the country. For all other Chinese tourists, a temperature test must be taken at the border.

Category III restrictions, which have been adopted by most countries, include border health checks and health declaration requirements, and have been introduced in Britain, Germany and France, among other countries. Instead of denying entry to Chinese nationals, screening measures such as temperature tests are conducted at the border, with symptomatic individuals isolated and individually examined.

That most countries have chosen not to impose draconian blanket restrictions on Chinese travellers is likely to have been decisions made in consideration of the countries’ long-term economic cooperation, and confidence in their own medical systems and epidemic control capacities. In line with recommendations by the World Health Organisation, many governments have made the rational choice of not restricting travel and trade with China too much in the face of the epidemic.
In a previous article, I compared the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), influenza in the US and the novel coronavirus outbreaks, concluding that, provided the fatality rate outside Hubei did not significantly increase, the novel coronavirus would be no more fatal than influenza.

Since then, the case fatality rate outside Hubei has not substantially risen. At the time of writing, at least 10 deaths have been reported outside Hubei, amounting to a case fatality rate of less than 0.2 per cent.

In other words, the threat posed by the novel coronavirus to regions outside Hubei appears to be lower than that of influenza in the US. The tremendous efforts of the local governments in China to contain the virus and the overwhelming cooperation of its citizens allow us to remain cautiously optimistic that the epidemic can be contained.

My previous article was meant to alleviate panic. This column is a call for calm from the governments of the world.

Within China, there are already strict measures to screen people who have lived in or travelled to Hubei. Before presenting with symptoms, all other travellers have taken the initiative to isolate themselves. Compared to China, the threat of the novel coronavirus to other nations is clearly far lower. Given the stringent screenings within China, external restrictions on the movement of Chinese nationals seem redundant.

To check the virus, hand washing is more effective than closing borders

For most countries, it would be sufficiently prudent to implement Category II measures to restrict the entry of Chinese and foreign nationals who have recently been in Hubei, and to improve infection detection measures at the border for other Chinese nationals.

Some countries, however, have shown excessive panic in their implementation of immigration restrictions. On February 2, Singapore, for example, went from Category II restrictions to a blanket ban on all visitors who have visited China over the past fortnight. Other countries that also recently upgraded their travel restrictions include the US and Australia.

In my view, the policies implemented by these countries are too radical, and treat the entire Chinese nation as an epidemic-stricken region. In the short term, these nations will have ostensibly safeguarded their security, but in the long term, they will adversely affect cooperation with China across all areas.

The choices made by governments in the face of this emergency may very well determine their prospects for cooperation with China in the future
For example, many overseas Chinese students who had gone home for the Spring Festival will be unable to return to their studies in time in the US, Australia and Singapore. Many business negotiations will also be affected, possibly leading to the cancellation of projects, or even legal disputes.
Of course, I also recognise that against the backdrop of international anxiety, some governments have made the right decisions, and exercised discretion in implementing measures that address security concerns, without adversely affecting cooperation between nations.

Travel restrictions might be necessary, but they should bar only those at substantial risk of infection (such as people who have been in Hubei), and not close the door on the whole of China.

Argentina, for example, took the initiative of extending a continued welcome to Chinese tourists. It is foreseeable that this move will win favour with Chinese people, and pave the way for fruitful exchanges between the peoples of the two nations in the future.

I believe that, through the joint efforts of China and the international community, the epidemic will be contained soon. Just as China’s economy will soon recover to scale new heights following the epidemic, the country will continue to open its doors to the world.

Chinese tourists will once again be one of the most welcome groups of guests, and academic and commercial partnerships between China and the world will become closer. The choices made by governments in the face of this emergency may very well determine their prospects for cooperation with China in the future.

Liang Jianzhang is the co-founder and executive chairman of Ctrip and a part-time professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management

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