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The World Needs to Reopen Borders Before It’s Too Late

Even as they struggle to control the pandemic, governments should move quickly to reopen borders instead of giving in to xenophobia, nationalism, and illusions of autarky.

A pilot arrives at Heathrow airport in London on June 8.
A pilot arrives at Heathrow airport in London on June 8. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Right now, it is hard to imagine a greater threat to the world’s well-being than the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 23 million people have tested positive for the virus—likely just a fraction of the actual spread—and more than 800,000 have died. The pandemic has battered the global economy, with the World Bank predicting global GDP to drop by more than 5 percent this year, a true worldwide depression far worse than the downturn in 2008 and 2009.

But COVID-19 is not the biggest threat the world faces. An even greater danger today is rising nationalism, which threatens to undermine international cooperation on vital issues including not only global public health but climate change and trade. And government responses to the pandemic, which have focused on border closings, travel bans, and reshoring the production of medical and other goods, are fueling the narrative that foreign people and foreign goods are a source of danger and vulnerability. As governments struggle to control the pandemic, they urgently need to shift direction and embrace cooperative responses, rather than building walls to the rest of the world. That includes moving forward more quickly on reopening their borders.

Nearly nine months since the first outbreak in China, international borders remain largely closed. The U.S.-Canadian border, advertised until now as the world’s longest undefended frontier, has been shut to all nonessential travel since March. Land border crossings are down 97 percent from a year ago. European nations—including the 26 members of the so-called Schengen Area, which had abolished all controls on travel—closed their borders in March, partially reopened them this summer, and have in some cases begun to shut them again. Britain this month announced a 14-day quarantine requirement for all visitors from France; this week, France announced it was reciprocating.

Norway has imposed a similar requirement for visitors from Spain and eight other European countries. The European Union has recommended its members reopen to countries deemed “epidemiologically safe,” including China, Japan, and South Korea, but remains closed to most others, including the United States. Some member states like Poland and Hungary have refused to reopen to any third countries at all. In addition to land border restrictions with Canada and Mexico, the United States remains closed to travelers from China, Brazil, Britain, the EU, and Ireland. China, which has been closed to most foreign visitors since March 28, this month reopened to those few Europeans who hold Chinese residence or work permits but is otherwise still shut.
Governments should begin immediately to develop plans for safely reopening their borders.

Initial shortages of medical supplies and personal protective equipment have also spurred countries to try to reshore industrial production in critical sectors such as medical equipment. Japan has set aside more than $2 billion to lure Japanese companies back from China, including Iris Ohyama, a manufacturer of medical face masks. Eighty countries and customs territories initially restricted the export of face masks, gloves, and other protective and medical gear. Most have since eased those measures, but dependence on imports is still widespread: China, for example, continues to supply the bulk of critical pharmaceutical ingredients to the world. But this month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to purchase essential drugs and equipment solely from U.S. manufacturers and promised billions of dollars in government subsidies to bolster domestic production. In signing the order, Trump said, “We must never be reliant on a foreign nation for America’s medical or other needs.”

Resorting to border controls and measures to boost domestic production was understandable—and in the early stages of the pandemic even laudable. Since COVID-19 spreads primarily by close personal contact, international travel seeded the outbreak across the globe. Initial shortages of medical equipment underscored the need for countries to do more to prepare for pandemics, the same way they stockpile relief supplies for earthquakes and other natural disasters. The restrictions also appealed to worried publics. In a recent survey that asked Europeans how their opinions had changed during the crisis, 57 percent said they now want stricter border controls, the most popular answer. In the United States, 78 percent favor border closures and immigration restrictions to fight the virus. Eight in 10 Canadians want the border with the United States to remain closed for at least the rest of this year.

But prudent precautions have given way to a more dangerous message—that the best way for a country to protect itself against the virus is to keep foreigners out and reduce its reliance on foreign goods. It is unsurprising to see this in the United States, where the Trump administration has used the COVID-19 crisis to bar all asylum claims at the border, shut down immigration processing, and stop most foreign workers from entering the country.

Of greater concern is the embrace of this new form of nativism by nations still seen as beacons of liberalism. In Canada, which has done a better job than its southern neighbor in controlling the virus, citizens have become so hostile to the presence of the handful of Americans permitted to enter that some have taken to defacing cars with U.S. license plates. John Horgan, the premier of the western province of British Columbia, commented in all seriousness that Americans worried about their cars should change their license plates (which would be illegal) or “ride a bike.” He then seemed to condone both xenophobia and vandalism: “I can’t tell people how to respond when they see offshore plates,” he said. The international star of the fight against the pandemic is New Zealand, which briefly eradicated the virus and has kept its borders closed to all foreign citizens in the hope of preventing future outbreaks. It’s a frightening reflection of the global debate that an island nation’s hermitlike self-isolation has suddenly become a model for enlightened pandemic control.

These leaders are playing with fire. Much as we saw in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is all too easy to whip up fears about dangerous foreigners. In the United States, the entire post-9/11 homeland security enterprise was built on the notion that the country could protect itself from the ills of the world by creating a bubble of safety and security. This delusion has had dire consequences. What started out as a rational exercise to try to identify and keep out terrorists has turned into an obsession with border walls to shut out those fleeing torture and persecution and produced cages for migrant children separated from their parents. The current effort to contain the virus through border controls suffers from the same myopia.
The debate over supply chains needs to move away from the ideal of autarky and recognize that no country can succeed in protecting its citizens by going it alone.

Instead, governments should begin immediately to develop plans for safely reopening their borders. These plans should be tied closely to health metrics and the expansion of testing and tracing procedures—both to control the virus and reassure citizens. The technical requirements are challenging but no more so than they were after 9/11, when new procedures were created at borders and airports to screen for terrorists and other security risks. In the early stages, this might involve clear benchmarks that would phase in travel and immigration depending on the success of different countries in reducing the spread of the virus; the EU has moved in this direction with its list of safe countries. More sophisticated procedures would target individuals rather than broad groups. Travelers could be required to be tested immediately before departing or on arrival, as some countries such as Iceland are already doing at airports. Visitors could also be required to download contact tracing apps in order to track their movements inside the country for the purposes of identifying and stopping new outbreaks, as China requires. Even if rolled out slowly, and at the expense of new intrusions on privacy by immigration authorities and border police, such initiatives would send the clear message that the current border restrictions are an undesirable temporary measure.

Nor should these be purely national initiatives. Countries should be working closely together to established common approaches for coordinating public health measures and a gradual reopening of borders and for sharing technologies such as those for testing and tracing. A good model was the so-called “smart border” negotiations between the United States and Canada after 9/11. The attacks resulted in only a brief closure of the border, but greater scrutiny of travelers in the aftermath created long delays. Concern over a disruption of trade and travel quickly led the two governments to complete difficult negotiations that same year to create procedures and protocols for enhanced security checks while allowing border flows to begin returning to normal. Similarly today, a new North American smart border initiative that integrates health and travel is desperately needed. EU member states, too, should be working toward a common protocol rather than for each country to go its own way. International discussions should be launched through the G-20 and specialized bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The debate over supply chains also needs to move away from the ideal of autarky to a resilience-based model that recognizes that no country can succeed in protecting its citizens by going it alone. European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan has called for an international initiative to “facilitate global access to affordable health care products, including for vulnerable countries without appropriate manufacturing capacities.” This could include the elimination of tariffs and new rules governing import and export restrictions during crises. Countries also need to cooperate in developing and distributing vaccines—and step off the current path of “vaccine nationalism,” where the major economies are competing to see which can protect its own citizens first.

Perhaps most importantly, governments need to change the messaging. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 is a global problem, not a national one. No country will be secure unless the virus can be brought under control everywhere. The pandemic should become an example of how the world can cooperate to solve a common problem—perhaps setting a model for tackling others such as climate change or the international flow of refugees. Instead, the pandemic is fast becoming a historical case study in how crises drive countries apart.

Edward Alden is the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden

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