Restricting travel, closing borders are not substitutes for strong public health measures in the COVID-19 pandemic response.
By Samah Rafiq*
More than a hundred countries have instituted additional travel restrictions and tightened border control measures since the novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The United States restricted travel to China on January 31, later extended to Europe. Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Peru, Kenya and many other nations soon followed suit.
Yet, COVID-19 is a highly exceptional crisis, and countries should not use it to justify greater restrictions on human mobility as a regularized norm. The coronavirus is not a problem of international borders, but an infectious disease that does not care about political institutions or quarrels. COVID-19 transmits from one human being to another, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, wealth, gender or more. Framing COVID-19 as a problem of human mobility distracts from efficient, targeted pandemic response and preparedness.
For this pandemic, nations should apply border closures only in certain circumstances, only for the short term. Otherwise, challenges emerge when national leaders connect the disease to open borders.
Too often, the conversation deteriorates into populist rhetoric about controlling entry of foreigners and false claims that states have lost control of their borders. For example, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on March 13 described fighting COVID-19 as a “two-front war” in which “one front is called migration, and the other belongs to the coronavirus.” The Greek government used the crisis to push forward plans to move refugees to “closed shelters,” an idea many rights groups have criticized in the past as euphuism for detention centers. Trump has used this crisis to promote his border wall agenda, and on March 13 tweeted, “We need the Wall more than ever!” At a February rally, the night before South Carolina presidential primary, in an attempt to link COVID-19 to immigration, he declared: “the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans.”
Yes, globalization has increased human mobility during the previous century, but access to international spaces remains varied for individuals, depending on a range of factors including nationality, race, religion and more. Countries, especially the developed ones, already conduct extensive background checks of potential migrants and maintain vast databases of information on visa applicants and migrants.
Making international mobility the scapegoat during a pandemic response risks a rise in xenophobic attacks on travelers, migrants and citizens, with attacks reported on Asian communities after the US president repeatedly labeled COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Such pointed labels deflect responsibility from pertinent issues like pandemic preparedness, resilience of health care systems, New York’s need for thousands of additional ventilators, reliance on the supply chain and the Trump administration’s dissolution of the National Security Council’s pandemic-preparedness office in 2018.
Framing COVID-19 as a nation-state problem also risks reducing cooperation for what is already a pandemic, a challenge that requires global solutions.
Borders remain highly porous institutions. States, provinces and communities have tried imposing emergency lockdowns and quarantines before the rest of the country, as happened with Hubei province in China, northern Italy, New Rochelle in the United States and parts of Kerala in India. Abrupt closures can result in hurried, panicked responses and the disorderly flow of individuals, only compounding disaster.
For example, the US government announced travel restrictions for Europe’s Schengen zone on March 13 with little notice or detail– prompting a mad rush of passengers trying to return home and long waits at crowded US airports. These chaotic conditions did more to spread COVID-19 rather than facilitate its containment.
India made the same mistake: Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown for its 1.3 billion people on March 24 with four hours’ notice: “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes.” Tens of thousands of daily wage and contract earners crowded the streets, anxious to cross intra-state borders in India, anxious to return to hometowns and villages, and people crowded outside local stores to ensure they had necessary supplies during the three-week lockdown.
In both these cases, public messaging by national leaders neglected key details that might have reduced the alarm, such as emphasizing that the Schengen travel ban did not apply to US citizens and assuring Indians that essential businesses like groceries would be open during India’s 21-day national lockdown.
In the absence of national guidelines, local authorities offer a patchwork of contradictory policies. The US state of Florida refused to block young spring-break travelers from colleges around the nation to crowd beaches and nightclubs in February and March, encouraging the potential spread of COVID-19. On March 23, as COVID-19 cases climbed in New York, the governor issued an executive order requiring quarantine for travelers from hotspots like New York. Yet with sustained community transmissions already well underway, such travel restrictions accomplished little for Florida and other jurisdictions.
The World Health Organization advises against travel bans, suggesting they can disrupt essential businesses, aid and technical support. Such bans are effective only in settings with few international connections and limited response capacities. “Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures,” the organization explained on February 29. “Such restrictions must be based on a careful risk assessment, be proportionate to the public health risk, be short in duration, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.”
In contrast, South Korea did not expend its resources on sweeping travel bans, but focused on effective public communication, broad testing and quarantine measures for all international arrivals and identification of local clusters of infected individuals via contact tracing. The country avoided forcible lockdowns and managed to flatten the curve.
Coordinated and consistent messages on social distancing, combined with early testing and contact tracing, can reduce panic, increase cooperation and slow COVID-19’s spread, buying more time for the healthcare system to cope with the outbreak and treat patients in need of hospital stays that can last 10 days or more.
Governments should use any extra time to prepare – readying treatment facilities for infected individuals, organizing healthcare providers, stockpiling personal protective equipment and ongoing public awareness campaigns. Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and China quickly contained outbreaks and continue to monitor to prevent second waves.
This pandemic demonstrates that the well-being of everyone depends on all leaders issuing messages based on the best science, citizens practicing basic consideration by following social-distancing protocols and striving to let the healthcare system protect the most vulnerable.
Two months passed between China’s lockdown of Wuhan and the World Health Organization COVID-19 declaring pandemic. During that period, other countries could have devoted full effort to preparedness. The coronavirus has demonstrated why governments must invest in internationally coordinated pandemic responses rather than fall back on limited nation-state strategies.
*Samah Rafiq is a Fox Fellow at the Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University, and a PhD candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her PhD focuses on human international mobility and border control practices.