On March 5, President Donald Trump said that his decision to implement travel restrictions on people entering the U.S. “saved a lot of lives.” On March 17, he adjusted that claim to “a tremendous number of lives.” A week later, he got more specific, saying, “Probably tens of thousands would be dead right now if I didn’t make that decision.” On April 7, he said, “If I didn’t do that, we would’ve had hundreds of thousands more people dying.”
Regardless of the exact number of American lives that he claims to have saved, one thing is for certain: Trump wants people to believe that his January 31 decision to curb travel from China was of great consequence. And with a lot of help from his media allies, this has become a running theme in coverage of the administration’s response to the unprecedented public health crisis over the past few months.
Fox News personalities have been hyping Trump’s travel restrictions with minimal evidence that they were effective in the long-term.
“If only we could determine how many people the president, by implementing that travel ban, prevented from getting sick,” co-host Ainsley Earhardt said during the March 2 episode of Fox & Friends. “I'm so glad he did that. That was a few weeks ago, when the Democrats were screaming impeachment, and he implemented that travel ban, thank goodness.”
Also on March 2, Fox host Sean Hannity claimed during his radio show that Trump “stopped the spread of this virus” by restricting travel from China, attacking Trump’s political rivals and mainstream news outlets for supposedly doubting him and declaring, “No president has acted faster.”
During the March 6 edition of Hannity, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel said, “The president has jumped in quickly, started the travel bans. He understands the public health issues. He's got top leaders advising him. Guess what the reason is? Try to prevent and slow the spread before it takes root here.”
Former Trump adviser and right-wing radio host Sebastian Gorka appeared on Fox Business on March 12 to say that Trump’s “travel ban” saved lives and was “the vindication of everything that propelled him into the White House.”
On March 16, Hannity called the travel restrictions “the single most consequential decision in history.”
During the March 31 edition of Fox News’ The Five, co-host Jesse Watters said that the travel ban was “much more critical in saving lives” than testing for coronavirus.
Lou Dobbs used the April 1 episode of Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight to exalt the president’s travel restrictions, claiming Trump saved “thousands of lives” and “gave us an opportunity at least to begin to react to this crisis.” “He wants to be certain that we are saving American lives,” Dobbs continued. “He has been proved right at every point.”
The giant gap between Trump’s issuing travel restrictions and implementing social distancing recommendations illustrates how important pro-Trump media are to his public image.
One way to obfuscate weeks of damaging inaction on Trump’s part is to falsely overstate the importance of what action actually was taken, as Hannity did with his ludicrous claim that restricting travel from China was “the single most consequential decision in history.”
During his April 2 press briefing, Trump himself tried to hype up his January 31 decision as bold and unique:
I cut off China very early. And if I didn’t, we would have a chart that you wouldn’t believe. So how would I know to do that? How would I know to cut off Europe? I cut off Europe very early. I mean, you have to make a decision. People knew that some bad things were going on, and they got off to a late start. And some others got off to a late start also. But we cut off China. If we didn’t cut off China, we would have been in some big trouble. And we cut it off.
But as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler explained, Trump didn’t do anything special in limiting travel from China:
Six countries imposed travel restrictions even before the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. Another six announced travel restrictions that same day, followed by 11 countries (besides the United States) announcing restrictions Jan. 31.
But most countries imposed the restrictions immediately. By the time Trump’s restrictions took effect Feb. 2, an additional 15 countries had taken similar actions — and in some cases enacted even tougher bans. But in any case, that adds up to 38 countries taking action before or at the same time the U.S. restrictions were put in place.
What seems to have gotten lost in pro-Trump media puffery around the travel restrictions is that banning travel can only work as a standalone response to an extremely contagious virus if it’s implemented before there are any cases in the country you’re trying to protect.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on January 21 that it had confirmed one case of the virus in the U.S., it noted that the infected person had arrived in Washington state from Wuhan, China, on January 15. On January 30, the CDC issued another press release confirming person-to-person spread of the virus in the U.S.
The White House seemed to acknowledge the futility of travel restrictions in the announcement itself, noting that there were already reported cases of the virus in 22 countries outside of China, and that “in several of these cases, the infected individuals had not visited China.” Additionally, Trump’s claim that “we cut off China” isn’t exactly accurate. His order created 11 exceptions to the travel ban, including U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and certain members of their families. And while some airports implemented coronavirus screening, the temperature checks and questionnaires that make up that process are prone to “miss more than half of people exposed to the virus,” as has been seen elsewhere with COVID-19.
The virus was being passed between people all over the world before Trump announced travel restrictions, and yet the administration -- as well as its allies in pro-Trump media -- have been trying to retroactively brand this decision as an example of decisive, lifesaving leadership. It simply wasn’t.
Experts have concluded that while travel restrictions may buy countries precious time ahead of a disease’s arrival, it’s not enough to contain a pandemic.
There are valid cases to be made in favor of trying to restrict travel from countries in the early stages of an outbreak, and there are valid cases to be made that restricting travel could actually exacerbate the problems of a pandemic. One thing experts seem to agree on, however, is that travel restrictions are not enough on their own to contain an outbreak.
On February 2, the day Trump’s travel restrictions went into effect, epidemiologist Jennifer B. Nuzzo wrote in The Washington Post that she believed that the virus had already crossed the point of containment, stating, “Reported cases have surpassed those of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which was also caused by a coronavirus.” Nuzzo further noted:
Even if it were feasible to keep coronavirus out through travel bans, these measures can make us less safe. Travel bans can penalize countries that report cases, which may in turn reduce countries’ willingness to share information about their outbreaks. Travel bans may also interrupt the flow of essential supplies upon which we depend to control the epidemic. China is a large producer of critical medicines and personal protective equipment — it is in our best interest to stay positively engaged with China in responding to this epidemic.
A March study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science sought to determine what sort of effect travel bans like the ones implemented by the U.S. and several other countries might have on stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus fueling the COVID-19 pandemic. By looking at data associated with China’s decision to clamp down on travel out of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, researchers concluded that the ban delayed the arrival of COVID-19 in other Chinese cities by about three days on average.
“This delay provided extra time to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19 in more than 130 cities across China but would not have curbed transmission after infection had been exported to new locations from Wuhan,” wrote the report’s authors.
Another March study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America reviewed the effect of travel restrictions and airport screenings on the international spread of COVID-19. Researchers found that “these measures likely slowed the rate of exportation from mainland China to other countries, but are insufficient to contain the global spread of COVID-19,” adding that “airport screening has only a moderate benefit during the early stages of the epidemic” due to the disease’s lengthy incubation period.
Damning reports published by The New York Times and The Washington Post outline how that precious time was wasted.
According to the Post, early issues with CDC testing, both in the tests themselves and the narrow testing criteria, led the administration to underestimate how many people in the U.S. had already been infected with the virus. As a result, “some in the administration didn’t initially take the crisis more seriously.”
“Some in the administration, including Trump himself, viewed the initial steps to contain the virus as the solution — rather than merely as a starting point from which to use to buy themselves more time,” the article stated, later adding, “Many public health officials say the administration did not make good use of crucial time before the virus emerged in the United States.”
According to the timeline of events reported by the Times, the Trump administration was made aware of the pandemic potential of COVID-19 in early January, but that it wasn’t until mid-March that the administration started taking the virus seriously, waiting more than a month until March 16 to issue national guidelines promoting social distancing and telework. In the interim, Trump downplayed the seriousness of the virus, adopting what amounted to magical thinking -- like his March 10 and March 12 claims that the virus would simply “go away.”
And not even the White House can make a convincing argument that it did everything it could from the time Trump implemented flight restrictions until mid-March.
“Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further spread, and it quickly treats those found with the virus,” said Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, in an interview with the BBC. “I think that’s the key behind our very low fatality rate, as well.”
Pro-Trump media will continue to applaud the president’s actions and lash out at his detractors. They can try to spin the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and untold damage to the U.S. economy as the fault of someone else. To them, it will always be the Obama administration’s fault, the Democrats’ fault, mainstream media’s fault, China’s fault, or the World Health Organization’s fault. It can never, ever be Trump’s fault.
The actual truth will always be that Trump’s travel restrictions, the single act these commentators keep pointing to as the best example of the administration’s response to the crisis, were not enough to protect us. But as their sycophantic coverage shows, the president’s right-wing media allies are only concerned with protecting him.
As the editorial of the upcoming Lancet issue examining how the U.S. became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic put it: “Caught amid the chaos are the American people grappling with the fear of a deadly and poorly understood virus, conflicting messaging around their protection and safety, fear of financial fallout, absence of a cohesive national strategy, and volatile, incompetent leadership.”