WHO reiterates travel restrictions unnecessary amid coronavirus spread

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 12 2020 03:11 PM

Passengers arriving at the NAIA Terminal 1 in Parañaque City wear face masks as a precaution on January 23, 2020 amid heightened alert to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — The World Health Organization's (WHO) Philippine office reiterated on Wednesday that it was not necessary for nations to implement travel bans amid the spread of COVID-19 outside China.

“WHO’s position has always been there will be no travel restrictions,” WHO Representative in the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe told reporters after being asked about the Philippine government’s decision to include Taiwan in its temporary travel ban.

“As I mentioned before, it is up to the governments, in this case the Philippines, to decide independently based on their risk and travel patterns whether they want to have travel restrictions,” Abeyasinghe explained.

This week, the Philippines clarified that Taiwan is included in the travel ban on China and its territories amid the spread of COVID-19 in other countries. 

The government initially said it would no longer accept travelers from China and its special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau. 

The Department of Health admitted that there was an initial confusion on whether to include Taiwan, but it was added as the Philippines follows the one-China policy and considers the independently governed territory part of China. 

Most of the more than 40,000 people infected with the new strain of coronavirus and most of the more than 1,000 who have died are in China. 

“We have observed in previous outbreaks that travel restrictions cause more social and economic disruption and less effective as a means of controlling outbreaks,” Abeyasinghe explained.

He pointed out that WHO did not recommend travel restrictions or bans during the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012.

There have been three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines, all Chinese citizens who traveled from Wuhan, epicenter of the disease. As other countries have also locked down its borders, the Philippine government decided to repatriate its overseas Filipino workers from China.

Recent reports said two of the repatriated Filipinos are now experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and are being monitored.

Asked what the WHO’s policy is on repatriation, Abeyasinghe said: “Our position has been no travel restriction. Repatriation again is a political issue decided on a country level.”

He said the WHO only wants assurance that the countries repatriating citizens for humanitarian reasons have “enough capacity to subject repatriates to the required quarantine period so that they protect the wider population.”

“We believe the Philippines has done that,” he said.

Social media posts from China show hospitals and holding facilities overwhelmed with patients.

Because of the widespread concern about the spread of the disease in the Philippines, the DOH has also recommended the cancellation of concerts and other big events.

“Taking measures to prevent congregation of large groups of people is an accepted measure,” Abeyasinghe said, adding that it is an internal policy decision for governments.