Coronavirus is spreading at an accelerating rate, but inappropriate quarantines and travel bans could cause more havoc than the disease itself. The World Health Organization has a duty to protect human health, but also an obligation to protect the world’s citizens from the human-rights violations or unnecessary economic hardship that panic could cause. So far, they’re doing a good job of striking this tricky balance.
WHO has advised against the far-reaching travel bans that some conservative U.S. lawmakers want to impose on China, where the outbreak started. The recent announcement that the U.S. will quarantine 195 people evacuated from Wuhan, China, makes sense as long as the people are held in a safe, comfortable environment.
But going too far will not solve the problem, and might even make it worse. Mass quarantines driven by panic have backfired, says Amy Fairchild, dean of the Ohio State University College of Public Health. It’s even counterproductive for the Chinese to quarantine Wuhan, as they’ve tried to do, because it’s too late to contain the disease, says Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Bloomberg School of Public Health. Attempts at mass confinement only make people want to flee.
WHO is also right to advise against travel bans, Toner says. It’s too late, since the disease has already traveled far from China. Travel bans now will create little benefit and much economic harm.
The 2003 SARS outbreak is the most commonly invoked past precedent to the current outbreak, since it was caused by a coronavirus and originated in China. Fairchild, who has worked on WHO guidelines and written about the organization’s response to that outbreak, says it prompted the most extensive quarantines and travel restrictions in global history — perhaps, in retrospect, too restrictive. Some 30,000 people were quarantined in Canada.
Scientists believe the current coronavirus looks less deadly, but may be more contagious. Fairchild says she hopes public health officials will contain the disease in a way that respects human rights — quarantining people at home, for example, and making sure everyone detained is in a safe environment with food and clean water.
Compensating the quarantined also can help, she says. By making sure people aren’t financially ruined by a quarantine, officials can encourage compliance.
Quarantine is a scary word, says Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University. In the past, it has been done in a way that can feel like punishment, but if done right, it should be seen more like jury duty — something nobody wants to do, but should, for the good of society.
Right now, WHO is walking a fine line with limited and ever-changing information. There’s still little understanding of how transmissible the virus is, or how deadly.
Toner ran simulations in October of a flu pandemic and a novel coronavirus outbreak. He said they anticipated interruptions of travel and trade, limited supplies of medicines and medical supplies, economic and societal consequences and spread of misinformation.
“Those have turned out to be pretty much right on,” he said.
Following WHO recommendations can minimize these human-caused problems. For now, panic and inappropriate responses to the virus threaten to cause more disruption than the virus itself.