On Saturday, Italy announced that 793 people had died that day from COVID-19, the coronavirus that originated in China that has rapidly spread across the world. That was up from 627 deaths that had occurred on Friday and 427 on Thursday. The death toll is now well over 5,000 in that country alone.
Also on Saturday, two Alitalia flights took off from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport and landed at New York’s JFK Airport.
Feb. 24, meanwhile, was China’s deadliest day from COVID-19; if Beijing’s possibly suspect statistics are to be believed, 149 people died from the coronavirus on that day. That afternoon, an Air China 777 arrived at JFK after a 13-hour flight from Beijing. The following day, Los Angeles International Airport welcomed flights from both Beijing and Shanghai.
That the Trump administration “banned flights,” “closed the borders,” or “stopped flights” from first China and later the European Union to halt the spread of COVID-19 has become a staple of its defense of its response to the pandemic. But it simply isn’t true. At no time through the course of this awful period have flights even once been halted between either China and the U.S. or Europe — including even Italy — and the United States.
The Trump administration did impose travel restrictions between China and the U.S., and later Europe and the U.S., but both actions have loopholes large enough to fly a 777 through. In the case of China, on Jan. 31 — weeks after it was known that the coronavirus was a serious problem — the administration restricted travel for “foreign nationals who had been in China in the last 14 days.”
That means that Americans — just as capable as carrying and transmitting a contagious viral infection as foreigners — had free passage between China and the U.S. And so daily flights between China and the U.S. continued. (And yes, even these limited restrictions were slammed as being too punitive at the time.)
The Trump administration’s alleged Europe travel ban, announced to much fanfare earlier this month, is similarly weak. It too exempts Americans from any restrictions whatsoever, and the screening that returning Americans have been subjected to at airports has been laughably weak. Passengers have been given a form to fill out (which many travelers have reported aren’t even being collected), waved through immigration, and then simply urged to self-quarantine. It’s like the honor system, but for containing a deadly pandemic.
Why did the Trump administration impose flight restrictions so flaccid and loophole-ridden that they were useless to stop the spread? I tried for days to get an on-the-record comment describing and defending the policy from the State Department, but yielded nothing. Nor would anyone from the Health and Human Services Department, which announced the China restrictions in the first place, respond to multiple requests for comment.
With officialdom refusing to defend the policy, I turned to Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has praised the Trump administration. Mr. Doran, it turned out, had mistakenly believed there was a total flight ban with China until I corrected him.
“I think in the U.S., Britain and Israel, where people value personal freedom, this kind of half measure is better, because it doesn’t raise civil liberty concerns, yet raises awareness. So you achieve part of your goal through administrative action and part through people, once their awareness is activated, engaging in self-limiting behavior,” he said. “Look at me. I follow the news and I mistakenly thought it was a more restrictive ban than it actually was. That kind of misinformation did a lot of good work for us.”
There was a point at which a true flight ban might have prevented, or at least slowed, the spread to the U.S. At this point, it would likely be useless. The coronavirus is firmly embedded in the U.S. We already have the third-largest number of confirmed cases of any country, and this is with only limited testing being done.
Regrettably, some people continue to be complacent about the virus, noting the large number of cases and (comparably) small number of deaths, which is still in the low hundreds. But COVID-19 takes upwards of three weeks to kill people, so there will be a lag between when infections rise and death tolls spike. And, to be clear, the number of deaths is already spiking significantly.
Unfortunately, we continue to follow a trend not unlike Italy’s.