The research findings on the effectiveness of border closures during the three-year COVID-19 pandemic, which ended according to the World Health Organization on May 5, have been analyzed to determine their impact.
Building on past experience
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lack of consensus among international organizations regarding a unified protocol to contain the disease. As a result, individual countries implemented their own measures, with closed borders being a prominent strategy. To assess the efficacy of this approach, scientists turned to previous epidemics for insights, but the available information was limited.
A study conducted by the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins in January 2020 aimed to examine the effectiveness of travel bans during epidemics. The American scientists selected four recent and highly dangerous infections, including the Ebola virus, SARS, MERS, and the Zika virus, for their analysis. The researchers reviewed over 2,000 sources and identified only six studies that discussed international travel bans as a measure to combat the spread of infectious diseases. However, these studies relied on models and simulations rather than real data, and most of them focused solely on air travel, neglecting land and sea crossings. Therefore, these assumptions did not fully consider the unique characteristics of each disease, the modes and speed of transmission, and the various behavioral, social, and environmental factors involved.
According to various reports, travel bans may have the potential to delay the entry of infections into a country by a matter of days or weeks. However, there is limited evidence to suggest that such bans completely eliminate the risk of long-term spread. It is also challenging to assess the specific impact of travel bans since they are often implemented alongside other control measures.
When it comes to the new coronavirus, past experiences with other diseases were not directly applicable, and the effectiveness of closed borders came under scrutiny. Instead of relying solely on travel bans, scientists recommended focusing on proven strategies such as vaccine development, medical screenings, patient monitoring, clear communication to the public, and investment in healthcare systems. Furthermore, they advised the collection and analysis of information to develop international protocols and foster coordinated global action in future health crises.
Barrier to cooperation, not to the virus
In October 2020, the Prague Institute of International Relations published an analytical article examining the closure of borders in Europe. The article aimed to assess the effectiveness of this measure in halting the epidemic and evaluate the overall effectiveness of different European Union (EU) countries’ actions in combating it.
In March 2020, the European Union (EU) implemented travel restrictions both within and outside the bloc, affecting 27 member states. These measures included limitations on movement between countries as well as within individual nations, such as between federal states in Germany or between cities in Spain and Bulgaria. The decision to impose these restrictions was driven by the national interests of specific states, aiming to safeguard their citizens from the disease and prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed. However, due to inconsistencies in the implementation and actions taken, the effectiveness of these bans was limited.
After a few months of border closures, the EU member states began to reopen their borders in an unsynchronized manner, often with changing entry conditions. The Czech Republic took an early step by implementing a “traffic light” system to categorize countries based on their infection risk. Travelers from countries on the “green list” were allowed entry without restrictions, but unfortunately, social distancing and mask-wearing measures were not adequately enforced. In Slovakia, a controversial rule allowed citizens who traveled to certain EU countries for less than a day to avoid quarantine or even testing upon their return. This approach seemed to disregard the fact that the risk of contracting the coronavirus does not diminish within a 24-hour period. As a result of these inconsistent and conflicting measures, many countries in Europe experienced record-high infection rates by the fall of 2020.
The author of the scientific article drew several significant conclusions.
- Firstly, border closures do not effectively halt the spread of the pandemic; instead, they restrict regional and international cooperation.
- Secondly, implementing appropriate safety measures within countries proves to be more effective than imposing travel bans.
- And thirdly, it is crucial for EU governments to establish unified guidelines during the pandemic to promote freedom of movement and avoid confusing people with inconsistent and illogical measures.
In October 2021, a study investigating the effects of border closures on COVID-19 transmission was carried out in nine African countries. The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, examined the situations in Egypt, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa.
What were the findings? The study revealed that in all of the examined countries, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases following the implementation of border closures. The researchers concluded that isolating states through border closures had minimal impact on the incidence of COVID-19. It became evident that this measure alone is insufficient to contain the epidemic, highlighting the need for additional control methods.
Effect in the moment, but not in the future
A comprehensive international study published in the journal Nature in early 2022 examined historical experience and data from the past two years of the pandemic. The primary objective of the study was to investigate the impact of border closures on the global spread of the coronavirus.
By analyzing over 1,000 entry restrictions implemented since 2020, along with data from previous epidemics, scientists conducted a thorough examination. Historical evidence revealed that prompt border closures resulted in a delay of several days or weeks in virus transmission to the country. For instance, during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, the implementation of maritime quarantines on small islands effectively slowed down the spread of the disease. The timing and extent of isolation were found to be crucial factors. However, in the case of the coronavirus, international borders were not closed immediately, and almost every country had its own exceptions for travel, rendering the measure ineffective.
The study yielded no evidence to support the notion that closing international borders had a significant impact on reducing the spread of COVID-19. Surprisingly, even islands and territories that implemented complete quarantines were unable to halt the progression of the disease. However, the researchers did observe that restrictions on movement within countries played a role in decreasing the number of new infection cases.
But what about China?
China effectively contained the initial outbreak in Wuhan by imposing a strict lockdown on the city of over 10 million residents. Following this success, Beijing adopted a stringent “zero tolerance” policy towards COVID-19, which is considered the strictest in the world. Despite these measures, localized outbreaks of the disease have continued to emerge in various regions of the country over the past three years.
Following public protests last year, China started to ease COVID-19 restrictions, resulting in a significant surge in cases. By December 2022, the number of infections had reached nearly 250 million, with a significant loss of lives. Despite implementing unprecedented and stringent measures like lockdowns, China was unable to effectively contain the epidemic. However, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, as of 2023, they claim that “the situation with COVID is under control.”
Too expensive measure
A recent study conducted by the University of York in Canada raises doubts about the effectiveness of border closures in combating the coronavirus. The researchers analyzed data from 166 countries that implemented various border restrictions within the first 22 weeks of the pandemic. The study revealed that targeted restrictions specifically targeting travelers from high-risk regions had minimal impact on containing the infection. However, it was observed that complete border closures did lead to a significant slowdown in the spread of COVID-19, although it came at a considerable cost.
The authors of the study emphasize that travel restrictions become less effective when domestic transmission rates are high, when highly contagious variants are prevalent globally, or when there are numerous exemptions to travel bans, quarantines, and testing. They suggest that if stricter restrictions, with fewer exceptions, had been implemented for a longer duration, it could have potentially reduced the transmission of the virus, but the associated costs would have been substantial. The researchers caution that the social and economic impacts on countries would be significant, and therefore, border closures should only be considered as a last resort.