As the country struggles through the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have finally obtained enough distance from the first wave to consider it properly in hindsight.
In those early days of the pandemic, when we knew so little and feared so much, governments around the world tried all manner of policy responses. Among the most popular was some form of travel restriction or border closure: by some measures, international travel restrictions were the second most popular policy response, after public information campaigns.
If you were to listen to the global public health community’s response to this initial wave of closures and restrictions, you might think it was among the most disastrous decisions of the pandemic. The conventional wisdom was that travel restrictions were at best unhelpful, and at worst actively counterproductive.
This truism and the beliefs that underpin it — that disease does not respect borders, that people will find a way to travel regardless, and they will go through dangerous unofficial channels if you close official ones — all dovetails perfectly with the general left-wing viewpoint on immigration.
Though it may be politically congenital to those who wish to see open borders, the public health opposition to border closures was not grounded in any real scientific fact. It was based on hunches about human behaviour.
In fact, one of the professors who authored the international pandemic playbook for the World Health Organization (which recommended against border closures) was quoted in Vox last week, saying “I have now realized that our belief about travel restrictions was just that — a belief. It was evidence-free.”
This is a shocking admission. If the idea had no evidence underpinning it, then why was it so popular? Here in Toronto, we survived both the SARS pandemic and the travel advisories imposed on the city by the WHO. As a result, we were very familiar with the potentially damaging effects of travel restrictions. Perhaps a lingering sense of grievance contributed to the desire to avoid border closures this time around.
Eventually, most public health authorities concluded that travel restrictions did nothing to prevent SARS, and that they inflicted a great deal of suffering and economic damage on cities like Toronto.
In the years since, through scares like Ebola or MERS, travel restrictions similarly didn’t seem to work well. And so the belief that border closures don’t work, full stop, became the kind of conventional wisdom that can all too often be confused with scientific fact.
As countries scrambled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they imposed border closures and travel restrictions, but based on political objections such as those cited above, these policies were porous to varying degrees. Even former U.S. president Donald Trump, who often touted his decision to close the border to China, left too many loopholes for the policy to be truly effective.
But while most countries included some manner of loophole, a few chose to go the full nine yards. Again with the benefit of hindsight, it seems possible to attribute those countries’ success in combating COVID to that fateful decision.
Take the country of Vietnam: at the end of 2020, the country had reported only 35 deaths from COVID. They had a paltry 1,465 cases over those first nine months of the pandemic, a fraction of its neighbours, including nearby China where the virus originated.
Experts now attribute this astonishing success in large part to the border closure. The country has also taken other policy interventions, such as test, trace and isolate, much more seriously — though even these additional measures are made possible by their low case count. Other countries that have experienced comparatively better outcomes, like Taiwan or New Zealand, have also featured extremely intense international border closures.
This is only one area in which we are beginning to reassess the conventional wisdom that has guided our response to date, and reconsider our steps and missteps in the earliest days of the pandemic. This episode speaks to the fallibility of our top doctors and public health authorities. If there is one clear lesson here, we must never allow what is politically convenient to guide our response, whether the issue is border closures, travel restrictions or vaccine allocations.