Editor’s note: For years, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, journalists and academic experts to discuss key international issues. This year’s edition is planned as an in-person and live-stream “hybrid” event. It will be held from Tuesday through Friday. It is free, but sign-up is required at worldaffairsconference.org. This column was written by a conference participant.
Diseases know no borders. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard that before. But the pandemic has illuminated how policy responses that rely on what we think we know about borders can be misguided. COVID-19 has offered some important lessons about the limits of global cooperation, even in the face of a major public health emergency. This is, in part, because borders “look” different across the globe today, with much of their function now taking place away from physical points of entry.
For those of us privileged to hold a passport, our ability to cross borders may seem second nature, a right associated with citizenship. As a migration researcher, my work over the last two decades has examined the ways in which the right to move across borders is highly unequal around the globe. This is not simply a result of the “lottery” of one’s birth, but a major and intentional feature of unequal global relations. I have found that over the past two years, the pandemic has made that inequality even more striking.
Immediate strategies against the virus involved a renewed emphasis on national borders, including the separation of residents from non-residents. It abruptly halted the movement of people and goods via border shutdowns and travel restrictions implemented by countries across the globe, barring entry to anyone who is not a citizen or suspending entry of people from certain regions of the world.
Many of these closures have been in direct contradiction to prior World Health Organization recommendations for borders to remain open during a global health crisis. This was agreed upon following the outbreak of another coronavirus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). At the time, member states established a set of guidelines that encouraged the move away from national self-interest and toward international coordination. While a major concern was avoiding interference with commercial trade, the agreement also recognized other factors.
Historically, border closures have not been an effective means of preventing communicable (and particularly respiratory) disease, buying only a few days’ time for under-resourced health care systems. They can also obstruct quick and effective responses to outbreaks by hindering medical staff and supplies, ultimately impacting larger supply chains.
In addition, border closures discourage the reporting of outbreaks because they create damaging trade and travel restrictions. We saw this in the case of South Africa, a country that immediately faced travel bans following announcement about the discovery of the omicron variant. Finally, based on past experiences, we know that border closures have high potential for discrimination, including unjustifiable restrictions on nationals of certain countries or against individuals based on their ethnicity, religion, or sexuality.
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One explanation for why these recommendations were largely ignored during COVID-19 is that they do not adequately consider what borders “look” like today. Borders are no longer simply geographic delineations — lines in the sand, so to speak — that mark out the edge of a country and regulate movement across them. Intensifying since the 1990s, borders have increasingly been pushed to the interior and reach into spaces of everyday life.
Today, mobile technologies — biometric identity systems, databanking — have moved into communities and homes through QR codes to track visits to locations and vaccination certificates that act as passports to enter places and engage in activities. “Bordering” also can be broadly applied to think about exclusionary practices that some populations encounter every day when trying to access basic human rights, adequate health care and other resources in society.
The widespread closure of borders at different points in the pandemic have been mostly symbolic, a frantic expression of control for many countries. Unfortunately, they also reminded us of the limits of global cooperation, the effects of which we are still dealing with as the pandemic enters Year 3.
While we do not see fundamental changes what border do — they continue to exclude the same vulnerable groups such as refugees, asylum seekers or simply people with the “wrong” passport — the pandemic has made the existing injustices in mobility even more visible. It has also laid bare how existing social tensions and political decision-making based on knee-jerk nationalist discourses can produce unprecedented destruction.
COVID-19 has highlighted the degree to which health across the world is interconnected, but it also shined a spotlight on the ways in which our systems are rooted in inequality. By understanding that borders “look” different today and “do” more than we are used to talking about, we can envision alternate and more cooperative responses to future global emergencies.
Heide Castañeda is a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of “Migration and Health: Critical Perspectives” and “Borders of Belonging,” and is a founding member of the Florida Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.