“I cut off China very early. And if I didn’t, we would have a chart that you wouldn’t believe. So how would I know to do that? How would I know to cut off Europe? I cut off Europe very early. I mean, you have to make a decision. People knew that some bad things were going on, and they got off to a late start. And some others got off to a late start also. But we cut off China. If we didn’t cut off China, we would have been in some big trouble. And we cut it off.”
— President Trump, remarks at a news conference, April 2, 2020
President Trump regularly pats himself on the back for announcing travel restrictions on China as the novel coronavirus emerged in January. Before the caseload in the United States exploded, Trump attributed what he considered a small number of cases to that decision. Even as deaths from covid-19 in the United States started to soar, he said he saved lives by imposing what he calls a “ban” on China.
“We’re the ones that gave the great response, and we’re the ones that kept China out of here,” Trump said on March 25. “And if I didn’t do it, you’d have thousands and thousands of people died — who would’ve died — that are now living and happy.”
The World Health Organization has cautioned against such travel restrictions, saying they are ineffective against a virus and in the long run counterproductive. Trump, according to news reports, was initially skeptical and worried about provoking China after signing a major trade deal. But his national security and public health experts convinced him that the move would buy time to put in place effective prevention and testing measures. (The government then bungled the testing rollout, but that’s another story.)
In Trump’s telling, he took bold action, ahead of others. “When I did China, it had never been done before,” he said. “I was the first one to do it."
Not quite. Here’s what the record shows.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 21 announced the first travel-related case of novel coronavirus in the United States. Trump unveiled his plan 10 days later, making the restrictions effective Feb. 2. (On Jan. 17, the CDC had begun health screenings of passengers on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.)
Trump barred non-U.S. citizens from traveling from China, but there were 11 exceptions, and Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were not included. U.S. citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and possible 14-day quarantine. Some flights were immediately suspended, but others continued for weeks, at the discretion of the airlines.
Some analysts at the time predicted that Trump’s action would be ineffective at preventing the virus from taking hold in the United States.
“All of the evidence we have indicates that travel restrictions and quarantines directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of our borders,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, at a congressional hearing Feb. 5.
“We don’t have a travel ban; we have a travel Band-Aid right now,” said Ron Klain, the Ebola “czar” during the Obama administration, at the same hearing. He added that monitoring everyone carefully “is the only practical thing we can do.”
The New York Times calculated that at least 430,000 people arrived in the United States on direct flights from China since Jan. 1, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions. Moreover, screening proceedings of travelers from China have been uneven and inconsistent, the Times said.
In any case, the United States certainly was not the first country — by a long shot. We reviewed a list of country actions maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations and cross-checked with official announcements. Six countries imposed travel restrictions even before the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. Another six announced travel restrictions that same day, followed by 11 countries (besides the United States) announcing restrictions Jan. 31.
But most countries imposed the restrictions immediately. By the time Trump’s restrictions took effect Feb. 2, an additional 15 countries had taken similar actions — and in some cases enacted even tougher bans. But in any case, that adds up to 38 countries taking action before or at the same time the U.S. restrictions were put in place.
In making this analysis, we included countries that banned travel, barred noncitizens or canceled all flights from China. We did not include 12 countries, such as Japan, that took some sort of action before the United States but with measures that were not as sweeping. Japan, for instance, barred travelers from certain regions of China, not the entire country. Some other countries, such Bangladesh and Myanmar, simply suspended visas on demand for travelers from China.
The earliest action was taken by Singapore on Jan. 23, canceling all flights from Wuhan, but the first country to impose a travel ban was the Marshall Islands on Jan. 24. It was tougher than the eventual U.S. action: No one could enter the country less than 14 days after visiting China, not even citizens.
The United States, however, does stand out among its peer nations in the Group of 20, the world’s financial powers. (The G-20 is composed of 19 countries, including China, and the European Union.)
Only Italy and Australia preceded the United States in imposing travel restrictions — though they were announced the same day — while India and Indonesia also imposed restrictions effective Feb. 2. Saudi Arabia and Turkey followed within days, as well as South Korea with a ban on travel from Hubei province. Russia imposed a rolling series of bans by Feb. 20 and, as noted, Japan took smaller steps early on but did not have a full ban on foreign nationals until April 3. South Africa on March 18 imposed a ban on foreigners who had visited high-risk countries such as China. Seven G-20 members, including the United Kingdom, Canada and France, took no steps to block travel from China.
The White House said this is the context in which the president’s statements should be viewed.
“President Trump asserted global leadership by making the U.S. the first major economic power to announce restrictions on foreign nationals traveling from China,” a senior administration official said. “The President’s swift decision came only one day after the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The President’s decisiveness paved the way for other nations to follow suit, saving countless lives around the world.”
Italy, which is also a member of the more powerful Group of Seven and the world’s eighth-largest economy, banned all flights to and from China on Jan. 31 but did not single out noncitizens. Australia, the 14th-largest economy, imposed an entry ban on all foreign nationals who have left or transited through mainland China, effective Feb. 1.
Trump’s action certainly caught the attention of China’s Foreign Ministry. “The U.S. government hasn’t provided any substantive assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travelers,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Feb. 3. “What it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a very bad example.”
Here’s the complete list of when countries imposed significant restrictions, along with the covid-19 deaths per million people recorded as of April 6. Some countries may not be reporting their numbers accurately.
Marshall Islands (no cases reported)
North Korea (no cases reported)
Hong Kong (0.5 deaths per million)
Philippines (1 death per million)
Singapore (1 death per million)
Papua New Guinea (0.2 deaths per million)
Bahamas (13 deaths per million)
Maldives (no deaths reported)
Trinidad and Tobago (6 deaths per million)
Afghanistan (0.2 deaths per million)
Tajikistan (no cases reported)
Rwanda (no deaths reported)
Jan. 31 — date of U.S. announcement (which was effective Feb. 2)
El Salvador (0.6 deaths per million)
Guyana (5 deaths per million)
Iran (45 deaths per million)
Italy (G-20 country) (273 deaths per million)
Jamaica (1 death per million)
Antigua and Barbuda (no deaths reported)
Turkmenistan (no cases reported)
Morocco (2 deaths per million)
Solomon Islands (no cases reported)
Micronesia (no cases reported)
Kiribati (no cases reported)
Australia (G-20 country) (2 deaths per million)
Egypt (0.8 deaths per million)
Kyrgyzstan (0.6 deaths per million)
Palau (no cases reported)
Uzbekistan (0.06 deaths per million)
St. Kitts and Nevis (no deaths reported)
Vietnam (no deaths reported)
Fiji (no deaths reported)
New Zealand (0.2 deaths per million)
Grenada (no deaths reported)
India (G-20 country) (0.1 deaths per million)
Indonesia (G-20 country) (0.8 deaths per million)
Iraq (2 deaths per million)
Israel (7 deaths per million)
Mauritius (6 deaths per million)
United States (32 deaths per million)
“Several countries that denied entry of travelers or who have suspended the flights to and from China or other affected countries, are now reporting cases of covid-19,” the WHO notes on its website.
For reference, here are the deaths per million for the G-20 countries that did not impose travel restrictions. There is no clear pattern evident. Italy imposed a ban Jan. 31 but has the highest death rate in the G-20. The United States has the fourth-highest death rate among the countries in the G-20.
- Argentina (1 death per million)
- Brazil (3 deaths per million)
- Canada (9 deaths per million)
- France (137 deaths per million)
- Germany (21 deaths per million)
- United Kingdom (79 deaths per million)
The Pinocchio Test
With more than 10,000 covid-19 deaths recorded in the United States, the third highest in the world, it’s unclear whether Trump’s travel restrictions were especially effective in the long run. The WHO says such bans, at the start of an outbreak, can briefly help buy some time — but that was lost when the United States failed to quickly set up an effective testing program. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, permanent residents and exempted foreigners — some carrying the virus — continued to travel from China.
In any case, it’s wrong for Trump to consistently claim that the United States was first. Many other countries imposed similar bans ahead of the United States, some even tougher. The president would have a stronger case to make if he specified that he was talking about world economic powers. Nearly half of the G-20 heeded the WHO advice and did not impose such travel bans. But Italy and Australia are hardly minor economic powers and announced their restrictions at roughly the same time as the United States.
Trump earns Three Pinocchios.
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