Coronavirus Travel Restriction and Why It Is Totally Useless

Surely by now most are aware of the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China. Last week the Trump administration ordered a new travel restriction which will deny entry to the United States to any foreigners who have been to China in the past 14 days.

Naturally, airlines need to do their part to screen out passengers who have been to China. But realistically, just what can they do ?

I just checked in for a United flight from Vancouver to San Francisco. As this is an international flight, UA shows a warning during check in and asks if you entered China in the last 14 days, and letting you know that if you did, you will not be allowed to travel on the flight.

A simple checkbox form, apparently, is all United can do to comply with the new travel restriction.

Granted, there really is not much UA can do besides trying to match the travel record of those who have input their passport / frequent flyer information and cross reference them with their itineraries on United or Star Alliance carriers. Is UA’s IT team capable of handling this? Maybe, maybe not. In the mean time, this enforcement appears to be solely based on an honor system. Indeed, a source confirmed Canada’s WestJet Airlines is trusting on passengers to be honest about their travel history.

Do you expect anyone who is trying to escape the virus (and perhaps China) at any cost to tell the truth about their travel history?

While I’m sure the CBP has their own data they can use to identify ineligible flyers, one must wonder if it is sufficient? My take on this is a resounding no. Why? Because of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Connection

As airlines suspend their flights to China, Hong Kong to this date has not fully closed its borders with mainland China and had only begun yesterday to mandate a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China. This ‘mandatory’ quarantine appears to be ineffective as it also relies on an honor system:

Visitors must isolate themselves in hotel rooms or government-run (centers). Residents must stay inside their homes.

This is a far cry from other countries who ban travelers from mainland China outright (The Philippines) or housing Wuhan evacuees at military installations during the 14-day quarantine period (The US). With the exception of Philippines and Taiwan, countries are not yet imposing travel ban or restrictions, respectively, on travelers who hail or depart from Hong Kong (HKG).

Also, Hong Kong no longer stamps passports as of 2013. What does that mean? It means for those who arrive at Hong Kong from mainland China, they will not receive a stamp on their passports indicating when they left mainland China. If they choose to disregard Hong Kong’s quarantine order and travel within 14 days of arriving at Hong Kong, there is no way for immigration officers at other countries to confirm when these travelers arrived at Hong Kong from mainland China, thus rendering the travel restrictions useless.

How many mainland Chinese cross into Hong Kong daily? Roughly 140,000. As of time of writing, Hong Kong is the 5th highest place in total cases (26) and one of only 2 places outside of mainland China (the other being Philippines) with death (1).

While no political statements are being made here, I believe until Hong Kong closes its borders with mainland China entirely or more countries impose bans on travel from Hong Kong (already too late by now on either), immigration officers perhaps have no surefire way to enforce any travel restrictions on travelers from China.

Final Thoughts

At this point it’s already too late to control the spread of the coronavirus by closing borders and imposing travel restrictions. As of time of writing, the virus is present in 28 countries. There is still much to learn about the virus and its true toll, but reports point to it being highly contagious. The silver lining is that the mortality rate remains low (for now). If you must travel, advice differ greatly depends on whom and where you get your information from, but consensus seem to be to keep your hands clean as much as possible and don’t touch your face.

Although there is probably no need for this: