At this point, the evidence is pretty conclusive: travel restrictions are an ineffective and costly tool to limit the spread of COVID.
They are ineffective largely because outright travel bans are leaky—and that magical barrier that so distinctly separates countries really only exists on maps. In a globally connected world and economy, travel bans nearly always come with loopholes: for essential workers; diplomats; business leaders; and citizens returning home from abroad.
Moreover, countries rarely know where, exactly, the variant they are trying to “keep out” is coming from. For instance, following the discovery of Omicron, many countries, including Canada, raced to put a ban on travel from South Africa (or, at least, on foreign nationals). But, even before it was discovered, the virus was already circulating in other countries.
A final issue is it punishes countries who discover and report: why announce you’ve discovered a new variant if your country risks being cut off from the world?
To enact a travel ban in a way that is effective comes at enormous cost. In the absence of exemptions, family members cannot reunite; citizens are stranded; imports of food and other essential goods are cut off; and, because variants can emerge and the virus spreads at home too, equally stringent restrictions would be needed within a country’s borders as well.
As such, it simply cannot hold for an extended period of time. Just look at Australia and New Zealand. Zero tolerance approaches may have worked in the first wave but with multiple variants and waves, they have abandoned their initial island isolation approach.
Why Canadians still support them anyway
Yet, a majority of Canadians still support border closures.
A recent poll by Polling Canada found that 61% of Canadians supported “closing the US-Canada border to non-essential travel due to Omicron” as of December 23rd.
But of course, allowing “essential” travel and targeting only one country means that, for all intents and purposes, there are no actual restrictions in place to speak of. It simply imposes sacrifices and costs for little to no benefit in terms of actual virus containment.
So why are Canadians still so supportive? Though we can’t answer this question with certainty, there are at least a few reasonable explanations which could be behind this disconnect.
1. An illusion of protection
Many experts have said that travel bans make us feel safe, like we are in control of an “outside” threat.
In other words, they create a false sense of protection. As a medical analyst on CNN recently said, “it’s like locking a screen door.”
This relates closely with the next explanation.
2. An urge to do something
When we face a new threat, it is hard to not want to act, to do something. Travel bans offer the appearance of a decisive public health response.
Further, among the possible options, this restriction has the least impact on the daily lives of most Canadians. And, if we tell ourselves the virus is primarily a problem of importation, and not community spread—though this is not the case in Canada—we can convince ourselves that we’re taking action, without imposing stricter measures within our own borders.
But, as one expert puts it is, what is really happening is: “It’s like you are trying to prevent sparks from entering the forest, but the wildfires are already starting.”
It’s likely that many Canadians simply don’t know how little of an impact travel bans have, and governments haven’t done a great job of communicating this. In fact, you might even argue that the federal government has played to this illusion of protection by using it as a first form of defence in the case of both Delta and Omicron, despite contradictory comments made at the start of the pandemic.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, it is possible that broad, fast, and well-executed travel restrictions may have been temporarily able to slow the onset of initial virus spread and buy us a small amount of time to prepare. But we neither used them in that way, nor would they be effective for this purpose now, as the virus spreads on its own here at home.
At this point, travel bans and restrictions impose costs on Canadians with little offsetting improvements to public health and safety.
They limit our ability to enjoy life; harm normal business activity; and, perhaps most importantly, cut people off from families. Canada is a country of immigrants: families, friendships, even marriages transcend borders. Cutting off travel to any one country might not seem like a big deal to most Canadians, but for some, it means the world.
Further, policies like random testing upon arrival—for individuals who are fully vaccinated and have already shown proof of a negative COVID test—seem like a wasted effort. They do little to limit the spread of a virus that’s already here, and the resources devoted to border testing and enforcement could be more effectively deployed elsewhere—such as better support of safe schools and workplaces.
Like most things in public policy, we should focus our efforts where they can have most impact and the greatest efficiency. Limiting international travel simply isn’t the effective solution we think it is.