Why Trump’s Europe travel ban makes little sense as coronavirus protection

March 12, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

President Donald Trump’s ban on most travel from Europe into the U.S. has hammered already-tumbling markets and astounded Europe’s leaders. But does it make sense as a measure to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the U.S.?

The short answer would appear to be “no”, according to experts at the World Health Organization. But first, let’s look at the specifics of what was announced late Wednesday.

Who and what is shut out?

One reason Trump’s announcement was so disconcerting was the fact that it was riddled with errors, on which the White House subsequently had to row back.

The president said in his Oval Office address that his administration was suspending, from Friday midnight, “all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” adding that “these restrictions will…not apply to the United Kingdom.”

In fact, as is made clear in his official proclamation, the ban applies to the 26 so-called Schengen Area countries on the European continent. This is the European area, comprising most of the European Union but also Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, through which people are able to travel freely—it does not include Ireland, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, so travel from those countries is not covered by the ban.

(The list of countries that are covered: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.)

Trump also said the prohibitions would apply to “the tremendous amount of trade and cargo” coming in from Europe, but again this is not true; it applies only to people. In addition, he said there would “be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” but failed to note—as the official proclamation makes clear—that there are also exemptions for permanent residents of the U.S., and residents’ or citizens’ close relatives.

Why was the U.K. specifically exempted?

That is not at all clear. While there is no free movement between the U.K. and the European mainland—even before Brexit, the U.K. was not part of the Schengen Area—there are currently also no coronavirus checks at the country’s borders, so people could easily be importing the virus on a regular basis.

What’s more, as the Financial Times‘ Edward Luce pointed out, the U.K. has “almost half the number of U.S. infections with less than a fifth of its population.” Even one of the government’s health ministers there is infected, and reports suggest that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration has accepted that most people in the U.K. will become infected at some point—the aim is to spread out the infections as much as possible, in order to relieve pressure on the health care system.

Want a deeply cynical take? As Politico has noted, Trump has golf resorts in the U.K. and Ireland.

Does he have a point about the Schengen Area, though?

Trump’s targeting of the Schengen Area reflects two key facts: that there have been over 17,000 coronavirus infections and over 700 Covid-19 deaths there; and that “the free flow of people between the Schengen Area countries makes the task of managing the spread of the virus difficult.”

All this is true, as is the fact that different countries in the Schengen Area have been tackling the crisis with very different levels of urgency.

For example, badly hit Italy has shut down everything except for drugstores and food markets, and Poland has shut all schools, universities, museums and cinemas—but school closures have only been applied very locally in parts of Germany and France. These measures may hinder local transmission of the virus to an extent, but they don’t tackle the issue of people bringing coronavirus in from elsewhere.

Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded Wednesday that as much as 70% of the German populace “will be infected”. This was not simply her throwing her hands up in the air in resignation; it is what epidemiologists advised her, based on the fact that the contagion is now beyond the containment stage. Like Johnson, Merkel has accepted that we’ve moved to the mitigation or “delay” stage.

And this is the point, not just for Germany (which has over 1,500 infections) but for other countries such as the U.S., where there are also more than 1,000 known cases now.

Too late

Essentially, once the virus is being transmitted within a community, keeping it out of that community is no longer where the focus needs to be.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which on Wednesday formally upgraded coronavirus to pandemic status, has consistently maintained that international travel restrictions will prove ineffective—a stance supported by the fact that Italy, the hub of European contagion with more than 12,000 cases, was the first EU country to flout the WHO’s advice and ban flights to and from China, the source of the coronavirus.

The WHO has not changed its stance, especially at this stage in the game—though it does shy away from criticizing any particular country’s policies.

“We’re later in the outbreak,” said Christian Lindmeier, a WHO spokesperson. “Now the focus should be on identifying patients, isolating them, treating them and contact tracing. That should be the focus now for any country where the virus has already set foot.”

The extent of the Trump administration’s focus on testing and treatment is yet to be determined—his assertion that insurance firms had agreed to waive co-payments on coronavirus treatment was subsequently denied by trade association AHIP—but what the president has undoubtedly done is to antagonize leaders in the EU, where he has already been threatening a trade war.

“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel in a joint statement. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—How coronavirus is affecting the global concert industry
Politicians around the world are going into quarantine
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating coronavirus
—How Europe is adapting to the coronavirus outbreak
—What Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan says about China’s coronavirus recovery
Conferences go online amid coronavirus fears—minus the hallway schmoozing
—Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on global business.