Are COVID travel curbs on China making the world safer? (2023)

With China reversing its strict zero-COVID lockdown policies, infections have been surging across the country. Hospitals are packed, and crematoriums are struggling to cope as bodies come in.

In response, dozens of nations — from the United States and Europe to Asia and Africa — have instituted a range of restrictions targeted at incoming travellers from China. Many, like the US, multiple European nations, India, Japan, South Korea, and Ghana require that travellers from China show negative COVID-19 tests before boarding flights. Some are insisting that these passengers take new tests on landing too, and undergo quarantine if those show positive.

Japan has also limited the number of incoming flights from China. South Korea, meanwhile, ceased issuing tourist visas to Chinese visitors in early January. And Morocco has temporarily banned all entry for visitors from China, regardless of their nationality.

In retaliation, China had stopped issuing short-term visas to South Koreans and Japanese visitors, sparking visions of a return to the chaotic travel landscape of 2020 and 2021, when individual nations imposed patchwork restrictions on each other with little global coordination. On January 29, China said it would resume visas for Japanese citizens.

The US, European Union nations, and many others have justified their measures as aimed at protecting their citizens. Yet in an interview with Britain’s LBC radio, United Kingdom Transport Secretary Mark Harper recently acknowledged another potential rationale for the policies: incentivising Beijing to be more transparent about data related to the COVID surge by raising the consequences of opacity.

So what does the science say? Will the restrictions imposed on Chinese travellers make the world safer?

The short answer: There is little evidence that the curbs will significantly influence either COVID-19 case numbers in other countries or affect the spread of new variants, scientists told Al Jazeera. But the policies might just be working to pressure China to become more transparent.

Are COVID travel curbs on China making the world safer? (1)

Will China’s deadly surge spread?

Since it relaxed strict restrictions in December following huge protests, China has struggled against the rapid spread of the virus. Between December 8 and January 12, the country’s hospitals reported nearly 60,000 deaths related to COVID.

A recent projection by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the reversal of zero-COVID rules could contribute to nearly 300,000 deaths by April, and about a million by the end of the year.

(Video) China criticises Covid travel restrictions and warns of retaliation - BBC News

Other governments have said they are worried about travellers from China bringing the virus with them. Italy, for instance, introduced its new rules after two planes from China landed with nearly half the passengers on board testing positive for COVID-19. And the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said that the number of virus-carrying visitors from China to South Korea rose exponentially from just 19 in November to 349 in December.

Yet numerous meta-analyses — comparisons of several different types of studies — have shown that such measures are most effective early on in an outbreak when they can slow down the spread of the virus.

Once an infection has spread widely across the world, travel curbs only work alongside domestic policies such as strict mask mandates, social distancing and lockdowns. Few people today have the patience or appetite for such domestic rules any more, Summer Marion, a lecturer and researcher on global studies and health policies at Massachusetts-based Bentley University, told Al Jazeera.

Most countries targeting visitors from China have relaxed mask mandates and other restrictions on their own populations, even while grappling with significant caseloads. The US, for instance, is recording more than 40,000 new cases a day on average.

The optics of appearing responsive to the crisis in China, in the eyes of their own citizens, might be a factor influencing measures that governments have taken, said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Science likely is not, according to experts.

“Even if every single traveller coming in from China were to be positive,” that would today constitute only a small fraction of the total COVID-19 caseload in the US, said Karen Anne Grépin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

South Korea, for instance, reported 31,106 new cases between January 14 and 21 — nearly 100 times the monthly figure of 349 Chinese COVID-positive travellers that spooked it into imposing restrictions.

But the US CDC, in its explanation of its travel restrictions, cited another worry: the potential emergence of “novel variants”.

(Video) China Covid wave: Countries impose stricter travel rules as cases rise

Are COVID travel curbs on China making the world safer? (2)

Can curbs stop a new variant?

So far, there is no evidence that the surge in cases in China is driven by any new variant of the virus.

On January 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that data from China suggests that more than 97 percent of all new cases were from two well-known subvariants of the Omicron coronavirus strain.

The EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control also recently concluded that “the variants circulating in China are already circulating” in the bloc’s nations and “are not challenging for the immune response” of their citizens.

To be sure, that does not mean that new variants cannot mutate out of existing ones, as infections remain high in China. The US CDC referred to that risk in its announcement of travel restrictions.

“If we believe what public health officials are telling us”, the travel curbs are aimed at stopping “the importation of potentially new variants that may yet evolve in China — but have not yet been established”, Grépin told Al Jazeera.

According to her, that reasoning rings hollow. China is not the only country that has seen spikes in cases recently — infection numbers surged in Japan and South Korea last year — but has been the only one to be slapped with travel measures. There is little evidence to suggest that China has a significantly higher risk of housing new variants.

Grépin pointed out that the new variant spreading like wildfire across the US at the moment — and likely from the US to other countries — is the Omicron subvariant US XBB.1.5, which was first detected in New York City.

In late 2021, when Omicron itself was new, Grépin had argued in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that travel restrictions imposed by the West on South Africa — where it was first found — and other African nations would be ineffective. By the end of December 2021, Omicron had indeed become the dominant variant in the US, despite stricter border control.

New variants today are also less of a reason to worry than they were early in the pandemic, said Peter Chin-Hong, a professor at the University of California San Francisco Health Division of Infectious Diseases.

(Video) Travel restrictions on Chinese arrivals are politically motivated, says China - BBC News

“You can give me a Dr Doomsday variant,” said Chin-Hong, but “it wouldn’t have the same consequence as early on in the pandemic.” That’s because “the population is in a very different place, with lots of vaccines, boosting, and natural infection waves”, he said to Al Jazeera.

Medicines such as Paxlovid and Remdesivir, widely available today, help too. They are largely effective in helping sidestep the worst of complications from new viral variants because they target enzymes that are crucial for viral replication, irrespective of the variant.

Experiences with past public health crises like Ebola also show that, in addition to dealing with new and localised outbreaks, travel restrictions work best against diseases with severe, rapid onset of symptoms, Chin-Hong said.

COVID-19, with its low infection rate, long latency — symptoms can show several days after a person is infected — and wide global spread does not meet those conditions. A passenger with a negative test could still be carrying the virus.

Yet there is another reason why countries might be imposing tough rules for travellers from China, said experts.

Are COVID travel curbs on China making the world safer? (3)

Will China open up on data?

Beijing, on its part, has described the restrictions as “discriminatory”. But other governments and experts have argued that China has only itself to blame.

China was reportedly offered vaccine doses and other aid by the US. But it has insisted that its vaccine and medical supplies were adequate and that “the COVID situation is under control”.

Beijing’s position lacks credibility, Osterholm of the University of Minnesota told Al Jazeera.

China has, in many respects, kept the world in the dark about its COVID-19 data. It has often been accused of passing off COVID deaths as mortality from underlying conditions only exacerbated by the virus. Even its recent estimates of a sharp rise in deaths in December and January are likely far lower than the reality, many experts fear.

(Video) How is China's post-zero-COVID travel freedom affecting tourism? | DW Business

“I’m getting more intelligence from China right now, by far, from news reporters on the ground, or from private sector companies [than from the government],” said Osterholm. In either case, the picture is one of an under-vaccinated population poleaxed by an underprepared reversal of zero-COVID policies, with inadequate stockpiles of appropriate antiviral medicines.

So even if the current testing and travel restrictions being placed on China have little chance of affecting outbreaks in other countries, there is still something that governments around the world could gain through these measures. “The only thing you have left is encouraging the Chinese authorities to share more data and do more sequencing of the virus,” says Chin-Hong.

The US CDC hinted as much in its original announcement of the new travel curbs, highlighting “the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported” by China. The WHO has also cited China’s lack of data transparency to call travel restrictions “understandable”.

The pressure might be yielding some results.

Since late December, China has dramatically stepped up its contributions of genomic data to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) sequencing database, allowing scientists from elsewhere to better scrutinise the nature of infections in China. It had turned in only 52 sequences between December 1 and 24 but then submitted 540 over the next six days. And the pattern continued through January, according to GISAID: China submitted 2,641 sequences over the past four weeks.

Many experts, like Marion of Bentley University, caution against attributing the measures focused on travellers from China to a single motivation. Still, transparency seems a key incentive — making these initiatives examples not of data-driven policy, but of policies driving a push to collect data.

Nevertheless, two things are clear. First, said Osterholm, “If you can’t control it in the country from which people are leaving, you’re not going to control it at your border either.” And second, a more transparent China would only bode better for the world’s response to COVID-19.


Should I avoid traveling internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic? ›

You can then travel more safely within the U.S. and internationally. But international travel can still increase your risk of getting new COVID-19 variants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you should avoid travel until you've had all recommended COVID-19 vaccine and booster doses.

Is COVID-19 affecting the whole world? ›

As hundreds of thousands of people continue to die each day from this disease, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact almost every aspect of daily life for the global population.

How do you stop global spread of COVID-19? ›

Proper handwashing is the best way to avoid spreading germs to help prevent infection. Using face masks in public settings helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.
These tips can help you and others stay safe:
  1. Get a COVID-19 vaccine, including the booster. ...
  2. Make sure children ages 6 months and older get the COVID-19 vaccine.

What will stop the spread of coronavirus? ›

Stay home when you are sick. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces regularly. Wash your hands often with soap and water.

Who should not fly on airplanes? ›

Diseases that prevent you from boarding a plane
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A recent stroke.
  • Infectious diseases, such as chickenpox, influenza or even COVID-19.
  • A recent surgery.
  • A pregnancy of over 28 weeks.
  • Angina (chest pain at rest)
  • Decompression sickness (also called The bends)

Should I wear a mask on a plane? ›

For people aged 2 years or older—including passengers and workers—CDC recommends properly wearing a high-quality mask or respirator over the nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation (such as airplanes, trains, buses, ferries) and transportation hubs (such as airports, stations, and seaports).

At what point is COVID no longer a pandemic? ›

Many experts say that COVID will likely lose its “pandemic” status sometime in 2022, due largely to rising global vaccination rates the widespread, less lethal, infection with the Omicron variant.

Who is most vulnerable to COVID? ›

Older adults are at highest risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. More than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur in people over age 65. The number of deaths among people over age 65 is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29 years.

Will COVID permanently change the world? ›

COVID-19 will leave a lasting imprint on the world economy, causing permanent changes and teaching important lessons. Virus screening is likely to become part of our life, just like security measures became ubiquitous after 9/11.

Can dogs catch COVID? ›

The virus that causes COVID-19 can spread from people to animals during close contact. Pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19. The risk of pets spreading COVID-19 to people is low.

How long does it take to get COVID after exposure? ›

If you were exposed to COVID-19 and do not have symptoms, wait at least 5 full days after your exposure before testing. If you test too early, you may be more likely to get an inaccurate result. If you are in certain high-risk settings, you may need to test as part of a screening testing program.

How long are you contagious with COVID after testing positive? ›

You are most infectious (or contagious) in the first 5 days after your symptoms start. You can also spread COVID-19 in the 48 hours before your symptoms start. If you never have symptoms, consider yourself most infectious in the 5 days after you test positive.

Can COVID be transferred through clothes? ›

The chances of getting COVID-19 from surfaces like food or clothing are low — the virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets. The FDA still advises you to follow food safety guidelines like washing your hands with hot, soapy water and cleaning countertops regularly.

Can you get COVID from someone who has just been vaccinated? ›

When people who are vaccinated get COVID-19 get a breakthrough infection, they are much less likely to experience severe symptoms than people who are unvaccinated. People who get vaccine breakthrough infections can spread COVID-19 to other people.

Can you get COVID twice? ›

Reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19 means a person was infected, recovered, and then later became infected again. After recovering from COVID-19, most individuals will have some protection from repeat infections. However, reinfections do occur after COVID-19.

What is the safest airline in the world? ›

The top 10 safest airlines 2023
  • Etihad Airways.
  • Qatar Airways.
  • Singapore Airlines.
  • TAP Air Portugal.
  • Emirates.
  • Alaska Airlines.
  • EVA Air.
  • Virgin Australia/Virgin Atlantic.
Jan 10, 2023

Are you at higher risk of catching Covid on an airplane? ›

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on a bizarre study commissioned by many federal agencies involving mannequins coughing at one another, suggested that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

Where is the most turbulent place to fly? ›

Routes with the most turbulence
  • New York to London. One of the most popular routes which experience turbulence is flying from New York to London (and also London to New York). ...
  • Seoul to Dallas. ...
  • Flying into certain airports near the equator. ...
  • Flying into Reno, Nevada. ...
  • London to South Africa.

Which airlines do not require masks? ›

These U.S. airlines do not require masks
  • Alaska Airlines: Masks are optional. ...
  • American Airlines: Masks are optional. ...
  • Delta Air Lines: Masks are optional. ...
  • JetBlue: Masks are optional.
  • Southwest Airlines: Masks are optional. ...
  • United Airlines: Masks are optional.
5 days ago

Can you still get free N95 masks? ›

Free N95 masks are available to pick up at local pharmacies and community health center sites across the country. Every person is allowed up to 3 free masks pending availability.

Do you have legal rights to not wear a mask 2022? ›

Any laws on wearing face masks and the policies of any private or public businesses and services must not breach this Act. As of 27 January 2022, there is no general law requiring you to wear face masks in certain places.

Is COVID becoming endemic? ›

Researchers used rats to gather data on COVID-19 reinfection rates and then modeled the virus' potential trajectory. They found that as vaccination and infection combine to facilitate widespread immunity, the virus could become endemic in the U.S. about four years after the pandemic began in March 2020.

Should I still wear a mask? ›

Everyone, including those who've been vaccinated, should wear a mask when in a public indoor space. If you're at higher risk of severe illness, you should consider wearing a N95, KN95 or KF94 mask for better protection.

What does endemic mean COVID? ›

Endemic: Constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area. Example: Human coronaviruses (not COVID-19) regularly caused colds in the winter months within the United States prior to 2020. Epidemic: Sudden increase in cases of a disease.

Can someone be immune to COVID? ›

When you have immunity, your body can recognize and fight off the virus. People who've had COVID-19 can get sick again and infect other people. The Omicron variant is more likely to reinfect someone than the previous dominant COVID strain, the Delta variant. You can get reinfected with COVID in 3 months or less.

Why do some family members not get COVID? ›

The Link Between Your Genetics & COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have been investigating whether some people are genetically “immune” to COVID-19. This is actually the case with HIV: some have a genetic mutation that prevents the virus from entering their cells.

Does COVID immune system damage? ›

The significance of these findings isn't clear, and longer-term studies considering the impact of underlying health conditions on immune function will be needed. But for most people, there's no evidence to suggest immune damage following a COVID infection.

How the world will be in 2025? ›

We will grow from three to eight billion connected humans, adding five billion new consumers into the global economy. They represent tens of trillions of new dollars flowing into the global economy. And they are not coming online like we did 20 years ago with a 9600 modem on AOL.

Is Omicron the end of the pandemic? ›

Several researchers think that the high transmission rate with very mild pathogenicity of the Omicron variant may build herd immunity, giving hope for the end of the pandemic [16].

What is the new COVID variant 2022? ›

The omicron subvariant of COVID-19, BA.5, became one of the dominant strains of the virus in the fall of 2022 in the U.S. At that time, it was the most easily spread strain to date and is able to evade immunity from COVID infection and vaccination.

What dog virus is going around 2022? ›

Dec. 9, 2022 – Flu season is a problem for more than humans. Veterinarians, animal shelters, and kennels are reporting outbreaks of canine flu in spots across the United States.

Do cats think humans are cats? ›

In fact, cats behave independently because they think humans are cats like them. They think we're just one of their kind. And cats reserve their affectionate behavior usually for the humans in their homes.

What can dogs eat that humans eat? ›

  • PEANUT BUTTER. Peanut butter is a healthy and safe treat for dogs to eat in moderate amounts. ...
  • CARROTS. Both raw and cooked carrots are safe for your dog to eat. ...
  • CHEESE. ...
  • CHICKEN. ...
  • SALMON. ...
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How long do COVID antibodies stay in your system? ›

Antibodies may be remain in your blood for many months. These antibodies are thought to give some form of immunity to the COVID-19 virus. But there's currently not enough evidence to know how long the antibodies last.

What is the best medicine for Covid cough? ›

Use medications containing guaifenesin, such as Robitussin, Mucinex, and Vicks 44E. keeping you from getting rest. Coughing is useful because it brings up mucus from the lungs and helps prevent bacterial infections. People with asthma and other lung diseases need to cough.

How long is COVID contagious for a vaccinated person? ›

Can I still spread the infection to others? Yes, you can. That's why the CDC recommends that everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should isolate from others for at least five days, regardless of their vaccination status.

Can you test negative for COVID and still be contagious? ›

You can have COVID-19 and spread it to others even if you do not have symptoms. Your COVID-19 test can be negative even if you are infected. Most people do not test positive for the virus until days after exposure. You may also be exposed to the virus afteryou are tested and then get infected.

Can you be positive one day and negative the next COVID? ›

Unfortunately, yes—it is possible.

What are long term effects of COVID? ›

Some people, especially those who had severe COVID-19, experience multiorgan effects or autoimmune conditions with symptoms lasting weeks, months, or even years after COVID-19 illness. Multi-organ effects can involve many body systems, including the heart, lung, kidney, skin, and brain.

Is it okay to travel during the pandemic? ›

Yes, you can travel once you have ended isolation. However, you should wear a high-quality mask or respirator the entire time you are around others indoors until it's safe for you to remove your mask around others.

How do you travel safely in Covid International? ›

Get up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines before you travel. Consider getting tested before travel. Follow CDC's recommendations for wearing masks in travel and public transportation settings. Get tested after arrival.

Is it recommended to travel during COVID-19? ›

You should not travel if you are feeling unwell. Even if your symptoms are not related to COVID-19, you will increase your risk of being denied boarding or being quarantined if your illness is detected at entry or exit screening at airports, during your flight, or when crossing borders.

Should you travel during the pandemic? ›

The bottom line is travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19, so staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.

Should I be traveling right now? ›

The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.

Is it easy to catch COVID on a plane? ›

Flying into the unknown

Barnett's model spit out a nice round number, suggesting the odds of contracting COVID on a full two-hour flight were about 1 in 1,000 at the beginning of the pandemic. But he believes the risks have probably increased significantly since then.

What is the best mask for flying? ›

The best face masks for flying on a plane, according to doctor guidelines:
  • Best Rated: SupplyAID KN95 Face Mask.
  • Best Secure Fit: Maxboost NIOSH-Approved N95 Mask.
  • Most Breathable: Kimberly-Clark N95 Pouch Respirator.
  • Best for Long Wear: ApePal 5-Layer Disposable KN95 Face Masks.
  • Most Comfortable: WWDoll KN95 Face Mask.
Jan 10, 2023

How safe is flying in the US? ›

According to research by Harvard University, flying in the US, Europe and Australia is actually significantly safer than driving a car. Your odds of being in an accident during a flight is one in 1.2 million, and the chances of that accident being fatal are one in 11 million.

What not to do when traveling abroad? ›

For a start, here is a list of 10 things you should never do while travelling abroad.
  1. Never Dress Inappropriately. ...
  2. Never Do Things Which Are Considered Unhealthy And Unclean. ...
  3. Avoid Consuming Alcohol. ...
  4. Never Disrespect Culture. ...
  5. Never Use Disrespectful Sign Language. ...
  6. Never Voice Your Opinion on Subjects Considered Taboo.
May 28, 2015


1. Millions in China on the move for Lunar New Year amid COVID surge | DW News
(DW News)
2. Why Chinese Tourists Aren’t Returning Fast Enough for the Global Travel Industry | WSJ
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3. Covid Surge: Australia, Canada to impose mandatory tests on visitors from China | Latest | WION
4. Social media videos show China nurses sick from Covid collapsing on the job
5. China blocks Japan and South Korea visitors over Covid rules - BBC News
(BBC News)
6. Debate over travel restrictions reignited as China's COVID-19 cases climb
(CBC News: The National)
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