The Human Cost of Endless Pandemic Border Closures

One year after the world declared borders shut, there is still no plan to reduce the toll on millions of lives.

Commuters sleep while waiting for the Otay Mesa Port of Entry to open to cross to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico
Commuters sleep while waiting for the Otay Mesa Port of Entry to open to cross to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, in the pre-dawn hours of May 20, 2020. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

I have spent my entire life traveling between Canada and the United States—or at least I did until a year ago, when the two countries closed the border to so-called nonessential travel in an effort to stem the growing COVID-19 pandemic. I was born in upstate New York, but my family moved to Vancouver when I was a small child. I returned to the United States in the mid-1980s with my new Canadian wife to attend graduate school, and we largely stayed. Since then, I have crossed the border multiple times each year for work, for vacation, and to visit family and friends. Until the lockdown, we frequently made the one-hour drive from our home in the state of Washington to Vancouver every few weeks—including to see our daughter, who is a student there. All that stopped in March of last year.

Like millions of others similarly affected around the world, I’d hoped the closed border would be a temporary measure. But despite all the encouraging progress on the vaccination front, it appears travel restrictions are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Canada recently announced more extreme measures, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for travelers arriving in the country by air, in an effort to prevent the spread of the new variations of the COVID-19 virus. One of the Biden administration’s first acts was to block all travel to the United States from countries where the new variants have spread, including most of Europe, Brazil, and South Africa.

Lives have been destroyed, families have gone unfed, and despair has eaten into countless souls.

A full year into the crisis, there is still no serious international cooperation to reduce the human costs of border closures. And our family is not alone. A Canadian group, Faces of Advocacy, shared some of these stories with researchers at the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, where I teach. The tales are wrenching: A young woman in Washington state has a partner of four years who lives across the border in Canada; when they were separated for eight months, she says it “killed my mental health in a way I never could have imagined.” A young British Columbia woman discovered three months after the border closure that she was pregnant from her Washington state boyfriend; several months later she miscarried, and her boyfriend pleaded with Canadian border officials to be able to go quarantine to be with her in Canada. He was told that caring for her and grieving the loss of their child was not essential and was warned he could be banned from Canada for a year if he returned seeking admission. Many others said they had been blocked from traveling even to care for sick or dying family members.

Canada, to its credit, last October added a “compassionate entry” program to allow some to care for loved ones and permitted many of those in committed relationships to reunite. The United States has offered nothing reciprocal. The group Let Us Reunite has been pushing the Biden administration to permit family members, such as adult children with elderly parents, to cross the land border into the United States—as Canada now allows in the opposite direction. Their website is filled with similarly wrenching stories of people living close to the border who have been unable to see parents, children, fiances, or long-term partners on the other side for the past year.

Multiply these stories by a thousand, if not a million, around the world. They cut across all nationalities and social classes—affecting the migrant worker unable to return to the job on which their hungry family depends; the immigrant, rich or poor, cut off from family and loved ones; and many others who were left stranded and whose plans are now destroyed. The costs have been tremendous and still grow by the day, ranging from lost income to the deep pain of cut-off relationships to mental illness. It’s another, less visible cost of the pandemic: Lives have been destroyed, families have gone unfed, and despair has eaten into countless souls.

It could have been done differently: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. and Canadian governments immediately sat down to negotiate new rules for the border that would harden the perimeter against terrorists and criminals while doing as little as possible to disrupt regular trade and travel. The so-called Smart Border Declaration was a landmark in modern border management. The U.S. government negotiated similar but separate protocols with the European Union, Japan, and many other countries to increase the safety of travel and trade.

This time around, there has been no such cooperation. Countries slammed their borders shut with little or no consultation with their neighbors. Since last March, Canada and the United States have simply been rolling over the border closure on a monthly basis, giving their citizens no signals at all about the circumstances under which the controls might be eased. In the EU—which has made unrestricted travel one of the defining rights of citizens, and where most member states have abolished internal border controls—countries closed borders unilaterally early last year, including to each other. European cooperation was restored later in 2020, but now countries all across the bloc are again closing their borders. While case counts are falling sharply in the United States and Canada, the border is tightening as caseloads remain higher than the first wave last year. At what point might the numbers be low enough to permit further travel? If governments have a plan, they have not shared it with anyone.

Travel restrictions obviously make sense in a pandemic. The basic tool for prevention is social distancing, yet democratic governments have limited means beyond gentle persuasion for enforcing stay-at-home orders or mask requirements. Borders, in contrast, are a hard stop—no one gets in without formal permission. Many of the countries that have successfully controlled COVID-19 are island nations, including Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan, that have kept out most noncitizens. Border bans, coupled with careful contact tracing and lockdowns if community spread emerges, have proved to be a successful strategy for these nations. Looking at their example, many health experts have been calling for more rather than fewer travel restrictions.

As much as world leaders say they’re following science, we know that they can’t divide policies from politics.

The new strains of the virus, too, strengthen the case for border control. They are more contagious and possibly more deadly, and countries would be remiss if they didn’t make serious efforts to keep the new variants out. Evidence suggests that travel bans can make a difference if they are imposed early enough. France in late January banned all travel to and from nations outside Europe. Britain is now requiring travelers to quarantine in hotels for 10 days at their own expense. Germany banned all travel from “areas of variant concern,” including the United Kingdom, and the country’s interior minister said he was considering “reducing air travel to Germany to almost zero.” Germany and other countries have even introduced widespread domestic travel restrictions to try to prevent COVID-19 from spreading from high-risk regions.

But as much as world leaders say they’re following science, we know that they can’t divide policies from politics. Shutting borders is popular: Nearly 90 percent of Canadians believe their border should remain closed, and an Ipsos poll of 28 countries last November found that two-thirds of respondents supported border closures. It is likely no coincidence that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new restrictions last month in the middle of a media firestorm over the slow rollout of vaccines in Canada—even so, he was chastised by editors at the Globe & Mail for acting too timidly. Canadians have been outraged by stories of politicians flouting stay-at-home rules. Ontario’s finance minister was forced to resign after taking a Christmas vacation in the Caribbean. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair chastised would-be travelers: “Unfortunately, some are making the choice to engage in nonessential travel. If they are going to make that choice, they should bear the full cost.” Canada’s new hotel quarantine requirement will cost them as much as 2,000 Canadian dollars (about $1,500) for the privilege. The move triggered a lawsuit charging the government with “forcible confinement” in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Travelers arrive outside the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 25 amid increased travel restrictions announced by new U.S. President Joe Biden.

Travelers arrive outside the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 25 amid increased travel restrictions announced by new U.S. President Joe Biden. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

All of this makes for good political rhetoric. Those of us stuck at home responsibly social distancing are understandably peeved when others flout the rules and jet off on vacation. But the crude and heavy-handed nature of the border closures is also imposing enormous human costs for those separated from family and other loved ones. The massive expansion of migration, international education, and transnational careers over the past several decades has not surprisingly led to many people building the most intimate parts of their lives across national borders.

The absence of government-to-government cooperation has produced wildly different approaches that make no sense from a health perspective. The United States has kept the land border closed to all but essential travelers such as truck drivers and a handful of health care workers. But for inexplicable reasons, Washington has not enforced the same regimen in air travel. A Canadian citizen living in Vancouver cannot drive south to Seattle—but is permitted to get on a plane and fly. Which is riskier: driving in a private car or mingling with strangers for hours at airports and on planes? And unlike in Canada, that air traveler faces no requirement to isolate after arriving. There have also been broad exemptions for anything related to cross-border trade, perhaps out of a desire to prevent further disruption to fragile supply chains—or due to the power of corporate interests. Of the nearly 10 million entries into Canada since the March 2020 border closure, half have been by truckers arriving by land. And truckers are exempted from all isolation and testing requirements that other arrivals in Canada must face.

For the first several months after the outbreak, governments could be forgiven their fumbling and improvising. It was a novel threat for which there was no clear playbook. And those separated by borders aren’t the only ones missing loved ones—stay-at-home orders, lockdowns at nursing homes, and other restrictions have kept many families apart. But one full year into the border closures, the millions of people whose lives have been upended deserve better.

Many U.S. states have phased reopening plans for businesses—countries should create a similar set of benchmarks affecting borders.

At a minimum, there should be formal procedures to consider compassionate and family exemptions rather than crude across-the-board restrictions. The United States, for one, should adopt Canada’s broader approach to family and loved ones, and other countries should follow suit. In the EU, fewer than half of the Schengen countries have exemptions for binational couples, and these only apply to partners from other EU nations. Many countries have imposed onerous requirements that make it difficult for non-married couples to prove their relationship. Politicians should avoid cruel gestures like a high-cost, mandatory hotel quarantine, which may deter most casual travelers but will make it prohibitive for others with a more urgent need to travel.

Governments must also start working together on plans for reopening as conditions permit instead of leaving their citizens guessing from month to month. Here, too, we all deserve better. Former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, who played a big role in building the post-9/11 border architecture, has called for similar international coordination among governments to use borders intelligently as part of a strategic counterpandemic strategy. One of the key elements should be benchmarks that would allow for gradual reopening as more people are vaccinated and the pandemic is brought under control. Many U.S. states have phased reopening plans that define when schools, gyms, restaurants, and other businesses can at least partially reopen as the spread of COVID-19 is reduced. Countries should create a similar set of benchmarks affecting borders.

The pandemic may be under greater control later this year—or further new variants may turn it into a multiyear battle. It is past time for politicians to drop the cheap rhetoric of border crackdowns—where it’s ever so easy to score points by keeping foreigners out—and instead begin managing their borders in a smarter, more differentiated, more humane way to address the long-term threat. They should work closely with other governments, restricting travel where necessary while minimizing the human cost as much as possible. Compassion demands no less.

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