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University of Saskatchewan (USask) public health law researcher Dr. Barbara von Tigerstrom (PhD). (Photo: David Stobbe)

USask law team studies impact of COVID-19 international travel and trade restrictions

How does a country balance the need to contain a disease outbreak such as COVID-19, with pressures to allow international traffic and trade? When should a country shut its borders—or re-open them—in the interests of protecting public health?

These are key questions University of Saskatchewan (USask) public health law researcher Dr. Barbara von Tigerstrom (PhD) will tackle as part of an international team examining the responses of nations to the coronavirus outbreak, including the imposition of international trade and travel restrictions.   

“We all want to prevent transmission of disease, but there are concerns about whether restrictions on trade and travel are the best way. Is it better to use other kinds of measures such as limiting contact within the community, rather than closing our borders, especially in the early stages of a pandemic?” said von Tigerstrom. 

There is no perfect solution to this. Our goal is to better understand the decisions made by countries and how those decisions were made, as well as to assess the legal framework for that decision makingGoing forward there will be some really tough questions about when we should open the borders, particularly given the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19.”  

The 18-month project, led by University of Ottawa medicine professor and physician Dr. Kumanan Wilson (MD), has received more than $212,000 from the COVID-19 rapid-response funding of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to evaluate Canada’s preparedness and reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Wilson, von Tigerstrom and USask law student Justin Okerman will evaluate how national trade and travel restrictions compare to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and to states obligations under the International Health Regulations (IHR)the set of legally binding rules agreed to by 196 countries in 2005 to prevent and control the international spread of disease, while avoiding “unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.  

“The IHR is supposed to govern travel and trade restrictions, but there are a lot of concerns about how well that’s working and how it could be reformed,” von Tigerstrom said. 
 
As recently as Feb. 29, the WHO was advising against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, yet many countries applied such restrictions. The team wants to understand why many countries didn’t follow the WHO recommendations and what can be learned from that to advise the WHO. 

The team will track when countries put restrictions in place and how these restrictions have expanded over time, as well as the various types of restrictions different countries have used.  

States are supposed to be making decisions according to the best scientific evidence,” von Tigerstrom  said. “Even if these restrictions work, are they worth the economic, social and political costs?” 

The team will also look at the role and impact of actions by other organizations such as multinational corporations, including cruise, airline and shipping companies, on international travel and trade during this period. 

The team anticipates their research will provide guidance to Canadian and international health authorities to optimize responses to public health emergencies and strengthen the IHR 

“We will also identify opportunities for Canada to assist and lead in global health security efforts,” she said. 

von Tigerstrom, a professor in the USask College of Law, is a leading expert on health law and public health law and policy. She is the author of Human Security and International Law: Prospects and Problems

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