From China’s lockdown of the city of Wuhan to U.S. restrictions on travelers from Europe to border closures across a widening range of countries, governments are increasingly seeking to limit freedom of movement in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
These travel restrictions have slowed, but not halted, the spread of the pandemic (“The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. However, the necessity and benefits of this public health response are outweighed by its violation of international law. Under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), binding on all World Health Organization (WHO) member states, health measures “shall not be more restrictive of international traffic and not more invasive or intrusive to persons than reasonably available alternatives”. Given the effectiveness of community-based public health measures such as social distancing and contact tracing, the necessity of travel bans must be weighed against less restrictive alternatives, increased global divisions, and violated IHR obligations.
The IHR seeks to govern how states can come together to address collective public health threats, whereas national travel bans drive nations apart through unnecessary economic isolation and rights violations. Although the IHR demands that health measures be implemented “with full respect for the dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms of persons”, travel restrictions unnecessarily infringe a range of basic rights related to the freedom of movement. In the COVID- 19 response, systematic social distancing interventions recommended by WHO were bypassed in the rush toward emergency travel bans, limiting individual freedoms while stoking nationalist responses.