As public-health officials race to keep the coronavirus (COVID-19) from becoming a full-blown global pandemic, governments around the world have been dipping into the migration management toolbox to demonstrate decisive action. Border closures, travel restrictions, and prohibitions on arrivals from certain areas are among the leading policy responses. The United States, for example, has banned entry to certain arrivals from China and Iran; arrivals from Italy face 14-day quarantines in Taipei, Hong Kong, Iraq, Macao, and other countries, and have been outright banned elsewhere.
The pressure to contain and isolate the virus is fierce; yet in a globalized world where millions of people cross borders every day, hermetically sealing one country off from its neighbors is next to impossible. According to a recent estimate, the longest flying time between two airports worldwide is 36 hours, shorter than the incubation for most infectious diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that blanket travel bans from affected areas rarely achieve their goals. Protectionism may disrupt social and economic ties, but do little to halt an airborne threat or truly serve the interests of public health.
The Wrong Tools for New Threats?
The threat of a pandemic has spilled over into border closures in more recent history as well. Fear of Zika virus (2016), Ebola fever (2014), and H1N1 influenza (2009) all led to calls for tighter restrictions on international entries in a range of countries. Yet applying border controls to the spread of disease is like trying to catch water with a sieve. It has little chance of netting the real threat.
The first hurdle is a practical one. Effective screening is nearly impossible to execute on a large scale considering the sheer volume of traffic at airports and ports of entry and the fact that disease detection tools (such as forehead thermometers) are of limited effectiveness (they may flag some who are not infected while missing those who are). Meanwhile, the first line of protection against communicable disease—physical distance from others—is the very thing undermined by long screening queues.