Research from UNSW Sydney reveals the high human costs and negative impacts of COVID-19 border restrictions and travel bans for citizens stranded abroad. The research also highlights the poor level of financial and health support provided by national governments for these citizens.

“At the time of writing these studies, most of the literature was focused on the impacts of travel restrictions from a mitigating and reducing disease importation perspective,” said Pippa McDermid from UNSW Medicine & Health, the first author of the studies.

However, less research was focused on the effect of COVID-19 travel restrictions on citizens unable to return to their home countries. This included tourists, business travellers, international students, families and short-term migrant workers.

“Very little attention has been paid to the unintended consequences of these restrictions on people’s lives and wellbeing,” says Associate Professor Holly Seale from UNSW Medicine & Health, the lead author of the studies.

“Often the focus is on tourism and holidays, yet many tens of thousands of people were separated from their partners or families for 18 months or more. We hope our findings will help policymakers plan and communicate support packages for this vulnerable population in future public health crises.”

In a large programme of research, the researchers mapped the impact of border and travel restrictions on international and Australian travellers.

Limited financial and health support from national governments

First, in a study published in BMC Infectious Diseases, the researchers analysed government COVID-19-related information online and support options provided by 11 countries to their citizens stranded overseas in June 2021. These countries included Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, USA, UK, France, Spain, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand.

“Our findings highlighted gaps, inconsistencies, and potential inequities in support available, and raise issues pertinent to the quality, accessibility, and usability of information,” A/Prof. Seale said.

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The analysis found that most countries provided some level of support around repatriation options; border control and re-entry measures; medical assistance; and traveller registration. But no country provided all these types of support.

Moreover, only three countries provided information and support for emergency housing and just six offered some form of mental health support, while less than half (5/11 countries) offered some form of financial assistance.

The quality of COVID-19-related information provided by government websites in the four countries examined (Australia, Canada, UK, and France) was poorly accessible, particularly for people with low literacy, disabilities, or limited English language proficiency.

“Out of the four countries who had dedicated websites for citizens abroad, Australia scored the worst overall for readability, accessibility and usability,” Ms McDermid said.

High rates of depression and anxiety

In further research published in PLOS ONE and BMJ Open, the team surveyed more than 2400 individuals stranded abroad to examine the psychological and financial impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions. The individuals were stranded abroad across all six regions globally between July and September 2021 and November and December 2021. Over half had been stranded for longer than five months, with the majority having more than one flight cancellation or change.

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the sample reported financial stress and moderate-to-severe depression, and over 40 per cent experienced anxiety and nearly 60 per cent reported being stressed. In addition, one in 10 experienced homelessness.

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The levels of distress were found to be even higher in those separated from their partners or immediate families and temporary visa holders. Of these, over 71 per cent reported financial stress (with an average expenditure of $US7285); 77 per cent experienced moderate-to-extremely severe depression; and over half reported moderate-to-severe anxiety (52 per cent) or stress levels (63 per cent).

“The levels of distress reported by this particularly vulnerable group are dramatically higher – over 50% more severe in some cases – than those reported by migrant workers, healthcare workers, and the general population during the pandemic,” A/Prof. Seale said.

“Respondents also reported little to no assistance from their national governments, highlighting the importance of providing additional support to this vulnerable group in future public health crises.”

Governments need better ways to communicate

In a final study that has been submitted for publication, the researchers asked respondents about how they accessed information on COVID-19 travel restrictions and its perceived usefulness.

The study explored different channels that governments used to share information, and how effective these were for different types of individuals. This research is particularly important in today’s changing landscape, with the shift towards seeking information from social media rather than more traditional sources.  

“With the changing landscape towards social media, considering the risk of misinformation, governments need to assess the best and fastest way to reach large groups overseas,” Ms McDermid said.

“Crisis communication during future events similar to this also needs to consider the specific needs of older groups, those for whom English is their second language, and those with low technology and health literacy.”

Note to media: The story above is a special early release from the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID 2023, Copenhagen, 15-18 April). Please credit the conference if you use this story.