Coronavirus: Is Closing the Border the Best Response?

On Sunday the Government announced that our borders are closed to China. This is in response to the coronavirus outbreak centred in Wuhan, China. As of February 3rd, approximately 17,000 cases have been confirmed, with 362 deaths and 487 patients who have recovered. But is closing the borders an overreaction? 

This measure is not supported by the World Health Organization, which stated: “WHO advises against the application of any restrictions of international traffic based on the information currently available on this event.” 

Media articles give some detail to what’s behind the WHO thinking: “travel and trade restrictions can lead to dire economic consequences for countries involved, creating a disincentive for them to quickly disclose potential outbreaks to the WHO or other nations. They can hinder the sharing of information, make it harder to track cases and their contacts, and disrupt the medical supply chain, potentially fueling shortages of drugs and medical supplies in the areas hit hardest by the outbreak. They also send a punitive message, which could contribute to discrimination and stigmatization against Chinese nationals, experts warned.”

The economic implications of closing the border are huge. The move triggered a $2.5 billion drop in the NZX50. The New Zealand Tourism industry is bracing for massive losses as there will be fewer tourists. And some 20,000 international students may have to withdraw from tertiary courses if the ban is not lifted soon. Closing the border makes us feel safe, but it has massive knock-on effects. 

So, what’s the solution? Could we keep New Zealanders safe and travel unrestricted? The good news is that, with the advances science has made in the last decade, it may be possible to do both. The global scientific community’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacular. Within one month of the virus being identified, a full genome and specific tests had been developed (although it took our Government nearly another month to get that test into New Zealand to conduct the testing here). While the initial tests currently take a day to turn around, other diagnostic tests are in development that could get results back within 15 minutes for less than $30 per test. These tests could be done in airports when passengers land – if we had the proper infrastructure. 

However, that’s a big ‘IF’. It would require dedicated facilities at Auckland Airport. Those measures would keep our borders open, keep trade flowing, and – most importantly – keep Kiwis safe. What’s more, it would likely cost significantly less than what it has already cost us to close the border and we would be ready for the next time a new virus breaks out. We could even pass the costs of testing and facilities changes onto the tourists themselves; the country already has a tourist levy. 

To me, that’s what preventive health care policy looks like: looking for opportunities to use the best technology we have to prevent outbreaks and illnesses and keep Kiwis and the economy healthy.


You can find out more about the author Dr Ben Peters here and follow him on Twitter @benapeters