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U of T Researcher Receives WHO Grant to Explore Ethics of Travel Bans

January 27/2021

by Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

Researchers recently received a WHO grant to examine the legality of travel bans.

“The legal side of things was traditionally of the opinion that travel bans are ineffective and unlawful. COVID has really put this idea to the test, and we wondered what it meant for travel bans now and in the future,” says Prof. Lisa Forman, an Associate Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Forman alongside Diego Silva and Maxwell Smith, former DLSPH PhD grads and professors at the University of Sydney and Western University hope to bring clarity to the decision-making behind travel bans, develop barometers and offer a nuanced assessment based on international law. But also, researchers want to understand what it will mean for lawyers when states ignore international law.

photo of Lisa Forman

Associate Professor Lisa Forman

“It’s a really big question – what’s the legitimacy of rules if everyone ignores them? There’s a lot of WHO regulations in pandemic response governance that weren’t considered in COVID, and this raises questions about whether these regulations are fit for purpose or need to be changed,” says Forman.

Even with barometers, it’s not one size fits all. A country can implement health measures that seem punitive without specifying through its guidelines an outright travel ban. Even so, Forman argues that international law requires that states make their decisions based on science and human rights. But, with the ever-changing nature of the spread of COVID-19, the international rules have ceased to apply.

Travel bans without any scientific bases for implementation have the potential to enable racism and xenophobia. Forman points to travel bans around the Ebola outbreak as an example, which she says were “sometimes knee jerk reactions to satisfy political impulses rather than rational decisions that could realistically stop the spread of disease.”

A group of scholars and grant recipients concluded last February that travel bans violated international law. Forman is not ready to state whether they were wrong or right at the time.

Scholars will have more questions than answers following the vaccine rollout, she adds.

“The idea is to bring together the legal reasoning in international law and ethical reasoning from bioethics to consider whether travel bans are both legal and legitimate. When the vaccine rolls out for everybody, there’s going to be decision making on how to lift the travel bans again, and we want to make sure policymakers are clearer about the legal and principled basis for those decisions,” she adds.

The researchers aim to release their early findings in March.