It’s a trope as old as the pandemic movie: In a far-flung village, a mysterious illness develops. A bloody cough, lymph fluid leaking out of eyes, fingers turning blue. World Health Organization doctors in hazmat suits cordon off the area; soldiers with flamethrowers keep vigilant watch to ensure no one leaves. But someone does — and the best laid plans of mice, men and supranational organizations are foiled.
Ischgl, Austria, isn’t that village.
The virus didn’t originate there; that’d be Wuhan, China. It may be small, but it’s hardly isolated. It’s a ski resort, after all. No one was told not to leave. There were no WHO doctors in hazmat suits or fierce-looking young men with actual weapons of war patrolling the outskirts of the village.
But there’s the rub: It turns out that Ischgl — not the archetypal quarantined village out of dozens of different movies — was the real danger.
“Nine months into an outbreak that has killed a million people worldwide, Ischgl is where the era of global tourism, made possible by cheap airfares and open borders, collided with a pandemic,” The New York Times reported earlier this week.
“For decades, as trade and travel drew the world closer, public health policy, enshrined by treaty, encouraged global mass tourism by calling for open borders, even during outbreaks.”
The piece discusses various visitors to Ischgl (ISH-gul) during the early days of the pandemic, back when the WHO was insisting there was nothing to worry about — and even if there were, there was nothing closing borders would do.
“They knew in late February and early March that the coronavirus was spreading in nearby northern Italy, and across the other border in Germany, but no one was alarmed. Austrian officials downplayed concerns as tourists crowded into cable cars by day, and après-ski bars at night,” the piece read.
In fact, one of the earliest disease vectors was European ski resorts. It would have made sense to shut them down as early as possible, as much of a hit as they would have taken in tourist revenue.
However, that’s not why the ski resorts stayed open.
“When the coronavirus emerged in China in January, the World Health Organization didn’t flinch in its advice: Do not restrict travel,” The Times reported.
“But what is now clear is that the policy was about politics and economics more than public health.
“Public health records, scores of scientific studies and interviews with more than two dozen experts show the policy of unobstructed travel was never based on hard science. It was a political decision, recast as health advice, which emerged after a plague outbreak in India in the 1990s. By the time Covid-19 surfaced, it had become an article of faith.”
That plague outbreak in India didn’t kill many people — roughly 50. However, in the aftermath of SARS, the World Health Organization decided to hash out what should happen in the case of future pandemics.
It chose poorly.
“In 2005, diplomats struck a compromise intended to balance public health needs with the economic consequences of ‘unnecessary interference’ with travel and trade. While the new rules did not explicitly prohibit countries from closing borders or restricting trade, they made it clear that doing so should be a last resort,” The Times noted.
“But the rules were never based on a scientific body of evidence. There were reasonable assumptions — closed borders could slow the arrival of medicine and aid workers, for example. Yet, no one studied whether restricting travel might slow a fast-spreading disease, partly because there was no tradition of collecting data on such interventions.”
“We didn’t think we needed to measure them because we thought we knew,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “Clearly, we didn’t.”
Gostin helped write the International Health Regulations, a set of rules for situations like this.
The general gist of them is that since global trade and the freedom of movement across borders were necessarily good things and there was no evidence that closing borders could slow the spread of any public health concerns down, countries should be discouraged from taking those steps.
These were steps that, had they been taken, could have saved Jane Witt a lot of agony. Witt was one of the people who went to Ischgl believing there was no risk. She ended up fighting for her life.
Now, she’s one of a number of individuals suing the Austrian government.
“They knew, they just weren’t telling anyone,” she said. “Wealth before health.”
Gostin, however, says this was simply a matter of faith.
“It’s part of the religion of global health: Travel and trade restrictions are bad,” Gostin said. “I’m one of the congregants.”
Beijing was, as well. When the Trump administration banned travel from China early on in the virus’ lifespan, China’s foreign minister attacked the administration for the move, saying it was “[i]n disregard of WHO recommendation against travel restriction.”
Holy crap—flashback to @wapo quoting the Chinese FM slamming the Trump administration’s 1/31 travel ban AND noting that WHO (still operating under Chinese disinformation about #COVID19) was against Trump’s move to stop entry into the US from China. pic.twitter.com/kkHfgwrv4Y
— Lyndsey Fifield (@lyndseyfifield) March 19, 2020
We assumed, at the time, that those recommendations were based on public health recommendations. They weren’t. They were political — and Beijing was perfectly willing to take full advantage of that.
So was Joe Biden, at least in the early days of the Trump administration’s coronavirus travel ban.
“You know we have right now a crisis with the coronavirus, emanating from China,” Biden said on Jan. 31, according to CNN.
“The national emergency and worldwide alerts. The American people need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it. That he is going to act rationally about it. In moments like this, this is where the credibility of a president is most needed, as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysterical xenophobia and fear mongering to lead the way instead of science.”
Biden would — as indeed most of the world — change direction quickly. And, as always, he made it sound like it was based on science — the very thing we had faith was guiding the WHO.
“Covid-19 has shattered that faith,” The New York Times noted. “Before the pandemic, a few studies had demonstrated that travel restrictions delayed, but did not stop, the spread of SARS, pandemic flu and Ebola. Most, however, were based on mathematical models. No one had collected real-world data. The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the latest coronavirus is still not understood.”
What we understand, however, is that the free movement of people simply isn’t an option when the potential for a pandemic exists. We learned that lesson the hard way, amid the slopes and après-ski bars of Ischgl.
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