The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Biden Changes His Tune on COVID-Era Travel Bans

President Joe Biden removes his face mask to speak about the status of coronavirus vaccinations and his administration’s ongoing pandemic response at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 21, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: Joe Biden’s on-again, off-again opposition to COVID-related travel bans; why some things that were long-thought unthinkable are sometimes quite possible; and a faulty argument that will not die.

Apparently Travel Bans Are Okay Now

A lot of people in politics operate under the principle, “Any idea proposed by your side is wrong, reckless, and represents your warped values, while any idea proposed by my side is right, wise, and needed, regardless of whether they are the same idea.”

On January 31, 2020, the Trump administration announced that foreign nationals who had traveled to China within the past two weeks would be barred from entering the U.S.

A lot of people would like you to think that there was unified, bipartisan support for this move, when actually there was nothing of the sort. In the preceding days before Trump made his decision, media voices at places such as Vox insisted that, “The evidence on travel bans for diseases like coronavirus is clear: They don’t work.” The New York Times ran an op-ed entitled, “Who Says It’s Not Safe to Travel to China?” CNN warned, “The US coronavirus travel ban could backfire.” Two days earlier, Biden’s longtime aide and current White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, had appeared on CNBC. When asked, “Would you ban Chinese travelers from the United States?” Klain responded, “I wouldn’t. I think that’s premature.”

While Biden never directly addressed the restrictions on travel from China in his speeches in January, February, and March of 2020, the soon-to-be Democratic nominee kept denouncing Trump’s “xenophobia” during this period. If Biden supported the restrictions on travelers from China, he hid it exceptionally well. On January 31, Biden said, “We have, right now, a crisis with the coronavirus. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” The next day, Biden — or, more likely, one of his campaign staffers — tweeted out, “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. He is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency.”

While those comments do not specifically refer to the China travel ban, it is impossible to interpret any of them as support of the Trump administration’s move.

Perhaps most illuminating, on March 12, 2020, Biden tweeted: “A wall will not stop the coronavirus. Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it.

It was not until April 3 — well into the pandemic — that Kate Bedingfeld, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said the Democratic nominee-in-waiting supported the enacted travel restrictions on visitors from China.

A lot of Democrats would probably prefer not to think too hard about Biden’s early vague views on travel bans in response to a pandemic. Shortly after taking office, Biden barred travel from South Africa, the Schengen Area (most of Europe), the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Brazil. (The travel ban from China enacted by President Trump is still in effect.) And the Biden administration announced it will restrict travel from India starting tomorrow.

Does it make sense to ban travel from India now?

The answer to almost every question in public policy is, “It depends.” Is a travel ban from an area afflicted with a contagious virus a good idea? It depends on the severity of the virus, how widespread the infections are from that country of origin, and the other costs and consequences of imposing that travel ban. We wouldn’t want our government imposing travel bans willy nilly; the human and economic costs of restricting freedom of movement are real.

But you can’t say: “Travel bans are okay when my guy enacts them, but represent paranoid xenophobia when your guy enacts them.”

Right now, India is getting absolutely slammed. If you’ve got a blazing fire, you want to prevent the embers from spreading and starting new fires elsewhere. But then again, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottleib sees this as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted:

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about India. There — there is a travel ban for –travel from India. Do you think that’s a good idea?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Well, I’m not sure what we’re hoping to accomplish. If the goal is to try to prevent introduction of virus into the United States, there’s plenty of virus here already. If the goal is to try to prevent introduction of that new variant, 6.1.7., that’s circulating in India, I assure you it’s here already. So we’re not going to be able to prevent its introduction. These travel restrictions could serve a purpose, but we need to be clearly– clear about what that purpose is. Right now we still have restrictions in place against travel from China and the U.K. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I’m not really sure what the overall strategy is around these continued travel restrictions that we have in place.

(A better and fairer criticism of the Trump administration’s travel restrictions on China is that they were enacted far too late. The last direct flight from Wuhan, China, to John F. Kennedy Airport landed January 23.)

Down under, the Australian government’s restrictions on travel from India are being slammed as racist — although the Australian government’s moves go considerably further; they’ve effectively told Australian citizens currently in India not to come home, “with penalties of up to five years in prison and nearly 60,000 Australian dollars ($46,300).

The Pfizer vaccine is believed to be effective against the “double mutant” variant found in India, as is Covaxin, a vaccine developed and manufactured in India. In fact, for all the variants we’ve seen, we haven’t yet encountered a variant that the vaccine doesn’t work against, only which ones have varying degrees of effectiveness.

But Gottlieb also has some good news regarding the variants:

Look, that’s absolutely the case, the more that this virus continues to circulate, the more it’s going to continue to mutate. But the reality is that these variants aren’t just cropping up in one market and in migrating around the world. They’re cropping up simultaneously in every market. You’re getting what we call convergent evolution where the same mutations that are arising in other parts of the world are also arising here spontaneously. There’s probably a finite number of ways that this virus is going to try to mutate to evade our immunity. And it’s testing us everywhere in the world. So the same mutations that are arising in other parts of the world are arising here as well. They just haven’t gotten a foothold here, in part, because we’ve been vaccinating our public.

It’s Not Just a Bad Prediction . . .

I think a couple of people misunderstood this Corner post from the weekend. Everybody makes predictions that don’t come true, and everyone misjudges some aspect of the world. But some assessments turn out to be so spectacularly wrong that they reveal a significant blind spot in public thinking. Bill Maher’s 2003 routine about SARS, and his confident declaration that “Mysterious Asian diseases just don’t come knocking at your door,” illuminates just how unprepared the United States was, psychologically and in terms of public health, for a massive pandemic such as COVID-19. Previous viral threats barely touched American life. Eighteen years ago, no one thought that a virus from Asia would ever impact American life; Maher’s routine framed it as self-evidently absurd. Now, he’s a comedian, not an epidemiologist. But think about Maher’s influence over public opinion compared to . . . well, just about any doctor in America who doesn’t have the surname “Fauci,” “Oz,” or “McGraw.”

You may have heard about the concerns that some sort of microwave-energy weapon had been used against U.S. embassy employees in Havana, Cuba, as well as U.S. embassy staff in China and Russia. (Russia appears to be the most likely suspect.) On Friday, we learned that the U.S. government is investigating the possibility that this kind of weapon was used against a U.S. National Security Council employee, not far from the White House.

“Russia is using microwave-energy weapons to sicken U.S. security officials” sounds like science fiction or an overwrought thriller novel. But things that seem impossible are unthinkable, right up until the moment they aren’t so unthinkable. We’ve split the atom, put a man on the moon, edited genomes, and created the Internet that allows you to read this. Is the development and deployment of an invisible beam weapon that causes brain injuries so unthinkable?

ADDENDUM: A follow up to Thursday’s piece: To this day, there are sportswriters who insist the reason Michael Sam did not get a bigger shot in the NFL is because he was gay, and that all 32 teams — as well as all of the Canadian Football League teams, Arena Football League teams, and so on — ignored his talent out of homophobia.


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