Medical Examiner

Don’t Close the Borders

This impulse has failed us again and again during the pandemic.

a man with a cart with a large red suitcase. behind him are the words "international arrivals" in large letters
A man wears a face covering at Heathrow Terminal 5 on November 28, 2021. Hollie Adams/Getty Images

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The announcement declaring it such made clear that while attention had focused primarily on the rapid escalation of the virus in China, cases were being detected all over the world, and any countries who were not detecting cases were essentially burying their heads in the sand. “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” the statement said.

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In the months and then years since that announcement, we have all watched countries do their best to take action, to varying success, and with varying approaches. The baffling thing about this coronavirus is that it seems to ebb and flow in different locations without an entirely causational set of explanations—some places do many things right and have outbreaks; some places do many things wrong and are fine (for a time). It is this situation that makes the whole thing frustrating and scary and hard to control.

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One of the things many nations tried to do as we first started to learn about COVID-19, and again when we learned of the delta variant, was close borders in an attempt to contain the spread. This approach seems to intuitively make sense—you can theoretically prevent a virus or variant from spreading in a country if you can prevent it from landing there in the first place. But most research has found that border closures in practice are too late to be effective. “Models have found that strict border closures could have helped limit viral transmission in the pandemic’s early days,” a news story in Nature about the result of a meta-study on COVID-19 travel restrictions states. “But once the virus started spreading in other countries, border closures provided little benefit.”

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That research was published in December of 2020—it echoes the sentiment of many public health officials and scientists who describe closing borders as a signal of taking action that is mostly aesthetic rather than meaningful. By the time they realize that borders could close, the virus is already spreading within them. Plus, the measure comes at a financial cost, and they damage any sense of global community. The latter is not about feelings: closing borders reflexively could disincentivize countries from sharing what they know about the virus’s spread out of simple practicality for their citizens who need to go places

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All of this is relevant again because of the discovery of the Omicron variant, a new strain of COVID-19 that we, for all the headlines and concern, know almost nothing about. The reason why people are freaking out about Omicron is because it seems to have characteristics that might mean it could evade vaccines—but we actually have no idea if it does. As Emily Oster wrote in her newsletter this morning, “It will be a few weeks before we know whether the variant evades vaccines and to what extent. It will take time to know if it spreads more quickly, or causes more (or less) severe disease. None of this is at all clear at this point and if people say otherwise, they are wrong.”

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And yet, the main response many, many countries are having to the news about Omicron is tightening their borders and refusing travelers from countries in southern Africa, where the variant was first identified (but almost certainly is already not contained). This is yet another example of a very common reaction to the pandemic—the desire to turn inward and protect oneself, one’s country, one’s community. It feels like doing something.

The problem is that restricting the border feels like doing something more than it is actually doing anything. COVID-19 has been a global pandemic since March 11, 2020. The experience still ought to be a lesson in the inter-connected nature of our public health, which is really global health, and yet we still respond to it reflexively, by protecting ourselves, closing our doors, closing our borders. I’m not saying any of that stuff doesn’t work at all—it can and it does. When regulating the borders works, it is done in the extreme: for nearly 600 days starting in March of 2020, Australia pretty much did not allow any international travelers, and Australians returning home had to go into a quarantine hotel for two weeks. This created “a bit of a COVID-free paradise,” as one researcher in Melbourne put it—at least until Delta slipped through. (This is all notably easier if your country is literally an island.) The Omicron border closures are in contrast rather porous; the US is blocking off travelers only from certain locations, even as it becomes clear that the spread of Omicron is unknown, and making exceptions for citizens. The virus, of course, does not care who issued your passport.

The main thing we could be doing to lessen the burden of COVID-19 on the world and on ourselves has been obvious for a really long time: Rich countries need to share the vaccines with poor countries. That’s the path toward eventual herd immunity, that’s the path toward slowing the creation of variants in the first place, that’s the path to a world that is managing the pandemic. Policy-wise, the focus should be on increasing vaccine equity, and tending to the health of the global community. But we haven’t learned that lesson yet.

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