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[Keenan Fagan] Time for a temporary travel ban

Recently, President Moon has expressed confidence that South Korea can control the novel coronavirus outbreak with its quarantine system and that its threat to the country will soon subside.

However, there is an increasing threat of a major outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) in the Republic of Korea because flights carrying passengers from much of stricken China continue to arrive. To contain the threat of outbreak here, it is time for the Moon administration to consider a temporary travel ban on foreign nationals from China.

While the United States and many other nations have imposed travel bans on foreign nationals coming from China, the Moon administration has decided to follow World Health Organization recommendations to limit travel restrictions. Currently, only foreign nationals from Hubei province are denied entry to South Korea. By keeping borders open, the administration has hoped to curry favor with China, its major trading partner, though COVID-19 has stopped the flow of business and trade there.

The Korean Medical Association would like the government to consider greater restrictions on travel from China. Its president, Dr. Choi Dae-zip, told Yonhap News that “since the onset of the outbreak, the medical association has consistently called for a ban to and from if not all regions of China, at least five of its provinces with the highest number of reported cases. … I understand China is a major trading partner, and the decision could hurt our economy, but as a doctor, nothing bears greater consideration than public safety.”

Dr. Choi pointed out that the country is ill-prepared for a widespread outbreak of this highly contagious disease. He said there are only 260 rooms across the nation equipped to isolate COVID-19 patients. Dr. Choi added that the potential for an outbreak will increase when tens of thousands of Chinese university students return for the spring semester, which has already been postponed for up to two weeks at numerous universities. He emphasized that a travel ban is not racist or anti-Chinese, but merely a measure to prevent the disease from spreading across borders.

And with cases surging toward 100,000 and deaths rising into the thousands, we now know how easily the coronavirus spreads. It has struck hundreds of passengers and crew members stranded on the Diamond Princess at dock in Yokohama. It is suspected of traveling 10 floors through a leaking pipe in a Hong Kong apartment. And 10,000 have been quarantined in Tianjin after it was discovered that one-third of all confirmed cases there stemmed from a local department store.

Unlike the slow-moving SARS or MERS viruses, COVID-19 is virulent and highly transmissible. It spreads more like influenza. Asymptomatic carriers may pass through airport screenings as the incubation period for the virus may be more than 14 days, according to a recent report by Chinese physicians working to treat the disease.

It is “very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” said Anthony Faucci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the US Center for Disease Control, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that it is “increasingly unlikely that the disease can be contained.”

These alarming statements demonstrate the urgency with which the Moon administration must work to contain the spread of coronavirus in the Republic. The administration should follow the United States, the Korean Medical Association and China itself with its quarantines, by imposing a temporary travel ban on foreign nationals from China. This is currently the greatest insurance that the Republic has of containing the coronavirus and keeping its devastating effects to a minimum.

President Moon has good political reasons for taking this measure. Former president Park Geun-hye was lambasted for not protecting the lives of citizens in the wake of the Sewol sinking. President Moon will face the same retribution if the coronavirus spreads here through travel from China or another stricken country.

And even if Korea can ride out the disease as President Moon predicts, an imposed travel ban would be credited for this success. For President Moon, imposing a travel ban is therefore a win-win proposition with Korean citizens. He is already losing popularity with young women for not doing enough to protect them from this virus. A travel ban would restore popularity and faith in the administration.

Furthermore, a travel ban now would probably incur limited repercussions from China. The president could argue that South Korea kept borders open longer than many other nations and that the travel ban would be only temporary. Greater assistance to China could be offered with fewer medical workers needed to combat the virus at home. And with its many quarantines and bans on travel within its borders, China must certainly be able to understand a Korean travel ban.

The Republic could also grant fall semester tuition reductions to Chinese students affected by a travel ban. This would cost much less than fighting an outbreak of COVID-19. It would also demonstrate that a travel ban is nondiscriminatory, merely a matter of public health, and that the nation is eager to welcome Chinese students when this immediate threat subsides.

For these reasons, the Moon administration would be wise to impose a temporary travel ban on foreign nationals coming from China until the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in the Republic of Korea subsides.

Keenan Fagan
Keenan Fagan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Dongguk University. The views expressed here are his own and not those of The Korea Herald. -- Ed
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