The Impact of Health Security on Travel Freedom

In general, governments adopt travel restrictions temporarily, in response to short-term health needs. For example, measures such as social distancing, which reduces face-to-face interaction, are believed to be effective in preventing the spread of airborne viruses such as Covid-19 and eventually bringing down the number of infections. As a result, governments have issued travel bans and stay-at-home orders, canceled international flights, and closed border entry checkpoints. Although for now these steps seem to have been taken temporarily, they are likely to affect international mobility in the long run for several reasons.

Many countries unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally waive their visa requirements. Generally, countries open their borders to citizens of other countries when it is economically beneficial to do so, and security risks are minimal. Visa waivers increase tourism, business travel, and bilateral economic transactions such as trade and investment. Other factors such as common languages, economic, political, historical, and/or cultural ties, and the quality of democracy increase the likelihood of visa agreements being signed between countries. Before waiving visas, some countries such as the US also take into account visa overstay rates, visa refusal rates, the use of biometric passports, the level of law enforcement, immigration enforcement interests, and commitment to sharing information on terrorism and crime.

Until now, countries do not appear to have considered health security as a determinant or requirement when negotiating visa waivers. However, increasing public health concerns due to the Covid-19 pandemic may change this. Historically, when the resolution that established passports as a requirement for international travel was adopted at the League of Nations passport conference in 1920, controlling the spread of epidemics was an important underlying reason for imposing borders. In the past, restrictions have always been short-term, however, in response to epidemics. Covid-19, on the other hand, might see the current restrictions becoming the norm.

A proxy to health certificates is to assess the quality of the healthcare system of a country based on its preparedness for and early detection of epidemics of potential international concern, mitigation, the quality of its health sector, its capacity, and the risk environment. The quality of health security could be a new consideration for visa waivers, especially for countries with economies that do not depend on inbound tourism.   

Although in future health preparedness could become a significant factor in visa waiver agreements, economic and security-related factors appear to be more prominent at present. This is borne out by the fact that countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia have high visa-free scores in the Henley Passport Index despite having low scores in the 2019 Global Health Security Index.

At the same time there is a positive correlation between health security and visa freedom. Countries that rank higher in the Global Health Security Index tend to have stronger passports, on average. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden, the UK, and the US all rank high in both indexes.

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