Canada’s response to restricting access to the country by non-citizens has changed rapidly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally announcing a closure of the Canada-U.S. border to “non-essential travel” while still allowing food, goods and medical supplies to cross.
The effective closure of the border comes two days after Trudeau announced Canada would restrict entry to anyone but Americans. Now they too are included.
Although Canada was, in many ways, late among nations in closing its borders to non-citizens, it was still a surprising move.
Days before the border was closed for non-essential travel, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said there was no evidence to suggest travel restrictions were effective and that Canada would not implement them. Trudeau stressed the importance of focusing Canada’s efforts on scientifically supported methods of slowing the disease’s spread.
In a matter of days, that stance of open borders and scientific evidence has shifted. It bears repeating that Canada is not alone. As the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic jumps from China to Europe, many countries have put up travel restrictions. These restrictions assume that viruses can be contained at ports of entry.
This is not true — and it is especially false after the virus is already present in the isolating country.
Travel restrictions and border closures
The World Health Organization advises nations against setting travel restrictions or closing borders as methods of combating the coronavirus outbreak. Restricting movement between countries that are already diagnosing cases is ineffective in offsetting an outbreak of the virus.
“In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” - The World Health Organization
For nations already caught up in the xenophobic politics of populism, however, this virus is understood as a migration problem. Some of our academic work explores how nations create in-groups by first creating dangerous outliers.
Governments have been handling border closures and travel restrictions in different ways, but we can see disparities in the ways that political parties and politicians work to convince electorates that they are legitimate authorities and in control.
Yet, in developed states with political factions suspicious towards migrants, closing borders and even restricting the travel of nationals may be attractive. For countries where public health infrastructures become inadequate, social structures become limited and alternatives are sorely lacking, closing the borders turns attention outwards.
When there is division within a country, the pressure to close borders may prove too great for even the most globally minded leaders. Trudeau’s initial hesitation to prohibit foreign nationals’ travel to Canada may be understood as a wish to prevent our policy from descending into isolationism. Yet, though Canada was among the last to restrict border crossings, we have done so.
The WHO and others have pointed out that travel restrictions not only divert resources from containment effort, they have real human costs in themselves.
For example, the world’s 10th largest economy, Texas, can expect travel and economic interruptions caused by limitations on trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Roughly one million jobs in Texas are dependent on cross-border trade with Mexico. These economic disruptions will render both Mexicans and Texans poorer, more desperate and sicker — all of which undermine efforts to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
Travel restrictions and nationalism
Closing borders is clearly not entirely about science; rather, travel bans are assertions of nationalistic and isolationist power.
President Donald Trump used his national address on March 11 to suggest how other nations had caused the threatening “foreign virus.” In that address, he instituted a ban on all travellers from Europe into the United States, excepting returning Americans. Noticeably, these types of restrictions — the “Muslim travel ban,” the end of Temporary Protected Status for some nationalities — have been a key component of Trump’s larger isolationist agenda.
The 21st century may be the century of the migrant. The crises of global economic volatility, climate change, civil unrest, organized crime and international conflict have conspired to put a record number of people on the road. Mass movement across borders means that the relatively privileged native-born citizens of the Global North now live beside a large number of immigrants, and they do not seem to always like it.
Populism inside the pandemic
We had seen rising rates of hate crimes and anti-migrant sentiment before anyone had heard of COVID-19. In New York City, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed “disgust” in response to a rash of racist behaviour affecting Chinatown businesses.. Since the pandemic was declared, our worst racist instincts appear to be coming to the fore.
Protecting vulnerable people has always been and will remain consistent with Canadian principles of dignity and inclusion across lines of nativity, racialization and ethnicity. Canada has now moved away from that resolve, and into lockstep with the rest of the world. Rather than uniting across national lines to confront a common threat, we are shutting out the world in response to a threat more conveniently cast as external and foreign.
COVID-19 is a medical challenge, certainly.
It is also a social and political event whose cause, trajectory and long-term ramifications say more about our institutions than about the illness. Canada will learn important lessons in evolving health care systems, social inclusion structures and national resilience. After the pandemic, Canada will need to reconcile the inclusive image we worked to construct with the reality of our closed borders.