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There was no scientific rationale for keeping the U.S. border closed for so long

The sustained closure was already riddled with bizarre loopholes, and seems to have had more to do with optics and politics than smart health policy.

There was no scientific rationale for keeping the U.S. border closed for so long
[Photo: Yelena Rodriguez Mena/Getty Images]

On a Bloomberg Television broadcast in July, U.S.-based British journalist Jonathan Ferro confronted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the international travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government due to the pandemic. He pointedly relayed to Buttigieg that he had watched his own father’s funeral, held in the U.K., “down the screen of an iPhone . . . because of your policies.”

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Ferro was referring to the travel ban that has restricted citizens of the U.K., as well as many other countries, from entering the U.S., purportedly to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Ferro could, in fact, travel to Britain, but then would be barred from returning to his life in the U.S.) To stop cross-border spreading of COVID-19, countries around the world closed their borders to citizen of other countries.  The U.S. barred entry to people from almost the entirety of Europe, China, India, Iran, South Africa, and Brazil.

But on September 20, the White House announced that finally, in “early November,” the ban will be lifted for foreign travelers, as long as they are vaccinated. The policy change comes as overdue relief for people who will have been separated from loved ones for 20 months. I can relate: Also a British worker in the U.S., I’ve been unable to travel home—or have family travel here—a tough charge as an only child with aging parents, and one I didn’t consider when I last departed Heathrow after Christmas 2019, unconscious of the impending pandemic and its doom for “aliens” such as myself.

Now with consolation also come questions about why the move took so long—especially when the banned countries opened to the U.S. much earlier, and when the policy already had so many loopholes as to be almost comical as an infection-mitigation protocol: Vaccinated U.S. citizens have been able to move freely in and out of the country, while others, including vaccinated U.S. workers and taxpayers like Ferro and me, have not.

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What’s more: Infectious disease experts say the restrictions have been scientifically futile, saying they’ve been more about beneficial optics for the government than good public health policy. They suggest it’s likely been a case of reluctance to shift strategy for fear of political backlash—and for the complexity of developing an alternative entry system—that allowed the consequential restrictions to endure.

Political ease trumps science

On March 12, 2020 (the same ominous night at the dawn of the pandemic in the U.S. on which Tom Hanks announced he’d tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NBA season was suspended indefinitely), then-President Donald Trump made a presidential proclamation, banning travel into the U.S. from the 26 European countries known as the Schengen Zone; two days later, he extended that to the U.K. and Ireland. (These restrictions would exempt U.S. citizens and family members, green card holders, diplomats, and some others.) Before leaving office, he lifted the ban, but President Joe Biden immediately reinstated it. It’s remained in place ever since, resulting in what will have been, by the time it ends in November, a 20-month ban.

The edict’s reasoning was clear from its title: Biden’s version is called the “Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-Immigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease.” The bans were in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But was there really scientific rationale for the policy? “I don’t think so,” says Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

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“It is appealing to think that one could erect a figurative wall around your country,” Schaffner says. “Except, it never works.” By March 12, the virus was already present in the U.S., and spreading rampantly. Perhaps if the bans had been earlier, when the virus was first reported in China, they could have had more of an effect.

When the closure was first established, it may have helped to delay the virus’ full impact, and slightly reduced the volume of the virus coming into the U.S., but with COVID-19 already raging mostly undetected inside the country, it had about as much effect as “[pouring] a glass of water into a swimming pool,” Schaffner says. More effective were transmission-reduction interventions like handwashing and masking, which studies supported in contrast to the “modest effects” of travel restrictions.

Crucially, there were no such bans for domestic travelers, who could fly within the country, potentially carrying COVID-19 between states. Even as border restrictions are lifted in November, foreign visitors will need to be vaccinated—but that’s not a requirement for domestic travelers within the U.S. (Although that is something the White House is now exploring.) It’s also still unclear whether the AstraZeneca vaccine, taken by most vaccinated Brits but not cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, will be passable for visitors come November, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, supports the inclusion.

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Eighteen months on, experts say the bans are certainly not rational any longer. “And, they’re certainly not worth the sort of massive human and financial and social costs that they’re imposing,” says Meghan Benton, director of research for the international program at the Migration Policy Institute, a left-leaning migration policy think tank. But she suspects Biden has been hard-pressed to reverse such a decision. “It’s a lot easier to introduce these things in the first place than it is to get out of them,” she says.

If you lift the ban, you need a practical alternative, which can be complicated to develop. The EU Digital COVID Certificate, for instance, used by the majority of European nations to permit entry, has had glitches and controversies, like not recognizing valid QR codes, and rejecting the Indian-made Covishield vaccine that’s prevalent in much of the Southern Hemisphere.

Leaky borders and nonsensical exceptions

Most of the developed world has subscribed to individualistic approaches to handling the virus, favoring unilateral orders over international coordination—say, in the West’s hoarding of vaccine supplies while the developing world remains without. “Any public health expert will tell you [it] is folly,” Benton says of inward-looking approaches to a global pandemic. Borders are always leaky: Since the proclamation, there have been exceptions for U.S. citizens and green card holders traveling back—even before vaccinations were available. Quarantine and testing requirements also have their limits.

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The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, closed on April 1, 2020 [Photo: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images]
There are more exceptions, but ones that make little sense. Take the Canadian border: Land travel is closed indefinitely, but air travel has remained open. (Even from November, the northern land border with Canada and the southern one with Mexico will remain closed.) What’s more, other countries with substantially high rates of COVID-19 were not banned at all, including Mexico, Russia, and Turkey. The ban was also not against citizenship, but rather geography—so a British passport holder was permitted to enter the U.S. if they rerouted and spent 14 days in one of those countries first. Yet theoretically, they could get infected in those nations. And, until the new policy goes into effect in November, there are still no vaccination requirements for visitors from any of those countries.

There are even exceptions for people from banned countries, as they have been able to apply for NIEs, or national interest exceptions, through a consulate. The visa I have, the F-1, is one of the few whose holders have been exempted from the ban since May, without the need for an NIE. But people on other work visas, like the H-1B (including Ferro, the Bloomberg journalist), did not have such privilege. The fact that a vaccinated U.S. citizen or green card holder can travel but a vaccinated foreign worker and taxpayer cannot seems scientifically absurd.

“We know that the virus doesn’t latch onto particular groups of people,” Benton says. Even for those allowed to travel, rules are opaque and hidden in fine print; I didn’t find out about my exception until recently, and some organizations still discourage F-1 holders from traveling, despite the exception, due to ever-changing laws.

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Then there’s the question of reciprocity: Many of the countries whose residents aren’t allowed into the U.S. have opened their borders to Americans. The U.K. and Canada opened to Americans in August; so did the EU. Business groups, the tourism industry, airlines, and governments, as well as the U.S. travel industry, have long been urging the U.S. to reciprocate. All the while, the Biden administration refused, until now.

More lobbying pressure from the banned nations may have tipped the balance for the White House. In early September, the EU removed the U.S. from its safe-travel list, leaving it up to individual member states to reimpose bans, which countries like France, Spain, and the Netherlands did for unvaccinated Americans. “It was retaliation,” Benton says; those countries enjoyed tourists’ U.S. dollars during the summer, but with the approaching autumn decided “to recoup some of that diplomatic leverage.” It seemed to work. The Biden administration announced the policy change just as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in the U.S. for a diplomatic trip.

The human toll around the world

Though the ban is now being lifted, it’s done real damage. “This chaotic patchwork has real human harms,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Benton says. The economic hit of tourism and trade aside, individuals have been separated from their loved ones, as I’ve been for an extended period. Benton herself says her mother couldn’t visit even as she had a new baby.

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French national Célia Belin wrote for The Washington Post that she couldn’t see her family in France, and is just one of “hundreds of thousands of European expatriates who, like me, happen to live temporarily in America. . . . We have children in school, we pay rent, and we pay taxes.” Belin left her dad in March 2020 as he lay in a hospital bed after a heart attack, concerned she wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. if she didn’t leave immediately. “I rushed back to my career and home in America, never imagining that 15 months later, I would still be stuck here, subject to a travel ban.”

This is true not just in the U.S., but all over the world. Different types of lockdowns globally produced an estimated 43,300 measures, and 70 bans, just between January and May 2020, triggering a 92% decline in international flights, according to a report released by Benton’s organization, which details the early human impacts. It found that 3 million people had been stranded by July 2020. Asylum claims were down by a third, and migrant workers, whose livelihoods depended on travel, were displaced.

Through it all, the system of closures has been decentralized, with each country inventing its own measures. Perhaps the U.S. was tempted to impose border closures because other countries were able to use them to contain the virus successfully. Australia, for instance, has had tight border control as part of a plan nicknamed “Fortress Australia.” The public was largely for it, due to its effectiveness, but only now is the government deciding it’s not a sustainable way to live. It plans to open up when 80% of the country is vaccinated, which the government hopes is before Christmas.

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But effective closures are easier for an island nation than a large country like the U.S. Plus, Australia complemented its ban with contact tracing and stringent lockdowns as part of a rigorous elimination strategy called COVID Zero. And it didn’t keep the delta variant out: An international flight crew infected a limousine driver, sparking COVID-19 spread that is still ongoing in Australia, showing the fallibility of border closures. When the country opens up, it’ll likely use a combination of testing, vaccination requirements, and quarantine requirements, as will New Zealand, which is due to open up with a tiered entry system in 2022.

As the COVID-19 travel bans end around the world, it’s important for countries to get a new admission policy correct, because whatever is introduced now will likely stick, Benton says—when the next global pandemic emerges. She suggests coordinated, multilateral policies with international standards such as vaccine mandates, which will be possible as vaccine access increases, including in the developing world. In future crises, those sturdy systems in place could avert the human costs we’ve seen this time around.

“Right now, any small outbreak would lead to the same kind of global shutdown,” Benton says. “How do we do things in the future so that it’s not so knee-jerk—and it’s not so harmful to people?”

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