COVID-19: WHO criticises India's blanket travel ban

Such measures in their own right will do nothing to protect individual states, says top WHO official to DTE query

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Saturday 14 March 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised India’s blanket ban on the entry of foreign nationals to its territory. India suspended visas of all foreign nationals on March 12, 2020. Earlier, such a measure was limited to only the most-affected COVID-19 nations.

“Blanket travel measures in their own right will do nothing to protect individual states. Many countries that had imposed bans, ended up importing more cases anyway and may have reacted later than they should because they assumed travel bans would protect then,” Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergency programme director said, in reply to a Down To Earth (DTE) query in a virtual press conference on March 13, 2020.

Ryan said the WHO was not aware of the risk and vulnerability studies carried out by India specifically before announcing the ban. “In the overall comprehensive strategy to deal with this outbreak, there is a case for restricting movement within zones of a country if there is an assessment but there is really no justification for blanket travel bans until the risk defends that,” he added.

Many countries did announce lockdown within their territories and many also asked foreign nationals to stay away from their shores but such an advisory was restricted for the most COVID-affected countries. India is the only country to have announced the blanket ban.

“Travel bans are not expected to have a major impact on the trajectory of the pandemic. Travel bans can paradoxically make situations worse by creating more panic and disruption while diverting public health efforts towards actions that are not the most valuable,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in a DTE query on bans.

India’s noted infectious disease expert T Jacob John has also criticised the move saying there was no evidence to support it.

However, the Indian government says it found the ban necessary. “All we can tell you is that we had done our risk assessment,” Lov Agarawal, joint secretary with the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told DTE in a presser a day after the ban was announced. He, however, declined to reveal what the risk assessment was, when asked about the specifics.

More than any restriction on movement, what was required the most was to do aggressive testing besides taking other measures like ramping up hospital care, contact tracing and training human resources, Ryan said. His stress on aggressive testing and these measures was also echoed by Adalja.

“It is much better for public health to increase diagnostic testing, vaccine development, antiviral clinical trials, public health communication, and hospital preparedness,” he said.

The more a country tests, the bigger the hunt for cases is than can be identified in a less-severe situation. If the patients come at a later stage, they would require higher degree of hospital care which may overwhelm any country’s health system. Italy is an example of that. Hence the advice to have more and early testing.

So the question arises, is India testing enough? According to a press release issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research, India has tested 6,500 samples since the beginning of the outbreak. This means an average of 4.55 tests per million Indian population.

DTE tried comparing how other nations, where cases are close to 200 are fairing. A summary is as follows:










New Zealand



Czech Republic










No of cases: Worldometer

No of total tests conducted in a country: Data aggregated from respective health ministries by ‘

John had said that this number did not appear to be good. 

According to other experts, while it is difficult to pass value judgment on India’s ban, but if such a ban was to be announced the testing number would go up. “The virus is most probably already in circulation in India. More efforts will be required to tackle this issue,” Bharat Pankhania, a senior lecturer in the UK’s University of Exeter Medical School, said.

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