COVID-19: How far can we go with closing the border?

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and governments are having a hard time keeping up with strategies to respond and react effectively to keep their citizenry safe. Some countries appeared to dismiss the seriousness of the virus for far too long (hello Trump administration), while others imposed what some felt were draconian measures (China, Singapore) that would not fly in a Western liberal democracy.

This piece appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on 17 March 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — One of those measures was the closure of borders to prevent alleged ‘disease-carriers’ from entering one’s land and spreading the infection. In one sense this was the right response as the virus did originate in a part of China late last year and an immediate ban on travel would have prevented any further dissemination. No arrivals from China, especially those who were in the most affected areas, no COVID-19 in your land.

The time to do that has long passed however, as COVID-19 is already present in most countries – yes brought in by those who probably traveled from areas where it was well-established – and is now spreading within communities with no link to recent foreign trips. It is no longer crucially tied to foreign sources.

COVID-19 is already present in most countries – and is now spreading within communities with no link to recent foreign trips. It is no longer crucially tied to foreign sources.

Nevertheless, some governments are enacting complete border closures in an effort to prevent further infiltration. Among those are Canada’s allies: Denmark, Germany and the US. Others have partial bans or have instituted procedures whereby visitors must ‘self-isolate’ upon return to their homelands.

The Trudeau government has just announced that Canada is barring entry to all travelers who are not Canadian citizens, permanent residents or Americans, as well as Canadians who are symptomatic with COVID-19. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has already said that barring Canadians from flights home because they exhibit symptoms effectively strips them of their right to re-enter the country and may in fact be unconstitutional.

The arrivals area at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on Monday. Canada has effectively closed its borders.

‘Democratic Party hoax’

Many were surprised by the US exemption. After all, it is not as if COVID-19 only affects certain ‘ethnicities’ and nationalities. Besides, in light of the aforementioned ham-handed initial response by the Trump administration, which incredulously said COVID-19 was a ‘Democratic Party hoax’, would it not make sense to shut the doors on our American neighbours as well?

Yes and no. Yes, because if we are going to ‘self-isolate’ as a nation it should be complete self isolation: no exceptions. No, for several very good reasons:

  1. We have a VERY long border with the US and it would be simply impossible to bar the frontier entirely;
  2. Our economy is inextricably tied to that of the US (whether this was a good idea for us to allow this to happen is something for a separate debate) and shutting the door would have a catastrophic effect on an economy already reeling. Perhaps we could limit cross-border flows to those who play a critical role in bilateral trade, although it is a valid question whether anyone in his or her right mind is thinking of taking a vacation to the Great White North in these challenging times anyway.
  3. Perhaps most importantly border shutdowns feed a disturbing xenophobic and anti-immigrant fringe that is unfortunately present in Canada and other Western nations. These extremists already hate newcomers, particularly if they are Muslim, and display alarming levels of anti-Semitism. A decision to deny all entries from abroad will feed these individuals and give them a sense of victory and emboldenment. Online forums are rife with hate and intolerance towards the Other.

Everyone in a position of credible authority has been saying that things will get worse before they get better. As a consequence, governments will have to be nimble in their strategies as more information comes in, allowing for better decisions based on science and fact, not fear.

Travel bans are partly based on fear. While they are understandable to an extent they have to be implemented carefully so they do not give the haters more fodder for their despicable views.

Phil Gurski is a retired senior strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS and the Director of the Security Program at the University of Ottawa


In this time of COVID-19, we have enough to worry about without freaking out about terrorism!

Even ISIS is afraid of COVID-19, suggesting we may not see an uptick in attacks seeking to take advantage of a possible skeleton crew in security and intelligence agencies.

The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and governments are having a hard time keeping up with strategies to respond and react effectively to keep their citizenry safe. Read more about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its ties with terrorism.

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