COVID-19 and International Travel: Why Closing the U.S. Canadian Border may not have been the Right Decision

By: Justin Weatherwax, 2L

(Alex Filipe/Reuters)

The recent decision to limit travel between the United States and Canada in response to COVID-19 is an unusual precaution that is made all the more remarkable by the lack of expert support. The 5,525 mile border between the United States and Canada was largely settled on June 15, 1846, when the United States signed the Oregon Treaty. With a few notable exceptions, the relationship between the United States and Canada has been peaceful, and the neighboring countries have generally allowed their populations to pass easily across the border. The border is so porous that it is crossed by approximately 200,000 people per day. At present, however, the International Boundary is closed to non-essential travel in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19. While citizens of either country will still be allowed to return home and essential and business travel will still be allowed, the closure of the border is a rare move in United States/Canadian history.

The only recent comparison to the current closure occurred in the aftermath of the September 9/11 terrorist attacks. Immediately following the attacks, the United States unilaterally closed its borders. Roads backed up for miles and industries suffered from the inability to continue trade. As a result, the United States agreed to loosen restrictions and allowed some trade to start back up. Today, the United States and Canada had more time to consider options and give warnings to the public, but that does not mean it was the correct decision to close the border.

The travel restrictions currently in place are not recommended by the World Health Organization, which advises “against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.” Instead, the World Health Organization emphasizes that travel bans can only be justified early in the spread of the virus and must be short in duration and regularly reevaluated. Closing the International Boundary even contradicts earlier comments made by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who stated on March 5th that Canada would follow the World Health Organization recommendations and “avoid knee-jerk reaction that [are not] keeping people safe.”

Presently, trade and business are still being conducted between the two countries, which may avoid some of the economic fallout from the last time the border was closed. Still, if health experts advise against closing borders during the pandemic, why have the United States and Canada chosen to do so? It appears the answer may lie more in sociological responses, with a rise in isolationism and nationalism in response to the virus. Racism and xenophobia are increasing in response to the virus, and it is important that the public consciously chooses not to continue down this path. If there is not a public health benefit to closing borders, which health experts say there is not, the border should be reopened.

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