Viewed from the proverbial (and literal) 30,000 feet, the most stunning consequence of the coronavirus pandemic may have been the sudden closing of national borders. In an increasingly open world, the past six months of severe international travel restrictions continues to disrupt lives and hobble the global economy.
Last week, the six-months-long closure of the world's longest land border, between the United States and Canada, to "discretionary" travel was extended to at least until Oct. 21. Leaders of these two neighbors face the same impossible dilemma as other countries pondering the reopening of their borders, between saving lives and saving the economy.
Tanking tourism: Morocco implemented one of the world's strictest border lockdowns, keeping its borders closed since mid-March and only allowing the initially trapped tourists to leave the country and stranded citizens to come back in July. But the country's economy has been dealt a serious blow, especially its tourism industry, which accounts for 7% of its GDP.
Tourism professionals have been urging the government to allow travellers back into the country, as the industry experienced enormous losses during the lockdown, with a drop of $1.2 billion in revenue in the first half of 2020. The city of Marrakech, empty of tourists, looks like a "ghost town," Le Mondereports.
The government has recently allowed Royal Air Maroc to fly visa-exempt foreigners with confirmed hotel reservations, but at the same time, extended the state of emergency by another month, following a surge in new cases.
For some however, opening the borders won't likely be enough to revive the country's tourism industry.
Controls at the Austrian-Hungarian border — Photo: Frank Hoermann/DPA/ZUMA
Europe's uncertainty: As soon as coronavirus cases were climbing again at the end of August, several European countries started to either reintroduce restrictions and quarantine measures or to close their borders again — despite German chancellor Angela Merkel warning Europe must avoid closing borders again "at any cost."
On Sept. 1, Hungary decided to close its borders to foreigners without consulting any other EU members, while Finland imposed Europe's "tightest" border restrictions and several countries added others in their unsafe travel list. This came with short notice for travellers and holidaymakers who were forced to either postpone, shorten or cancel their trips altogether.
But this lack of coordination could have far worse consequences in the long run and not just for travellers, but also for cross-border and seasonal workers, students, or families and couples, and on the European economic and cultural life. That is why 71 lawmakers from the European Parliament wrote an open letter, calling EU member states to come "to an agreement on common sanitary measures in Schengen," after witnessing this summer "the chaos at the internal borders of the EU."
The European Commission is currently testing coronavirus contacts-tracing apps that would interoperate across the bloc. But that might not be enough to ensure one country or the other will not close its borders.
Canada's problematic neighbor: Despite economic pressure, others are not so keen to reopen their borders, fearing the free flow of population might result in a resurgence of cases.
This is the case for Canada, as its neighbor, the United States is registering the highest number of cases in the world with over 6.9 million infections and highest number of deaths with over 200,000 fatalities.
Some border city mayors prefer the border to stay closed for a longer period of time. Mayor Mike Bradley of Sarnia, Ontario, which borders the U.S. state of Michigan, pleaded to Canadian officials on CTV News: "Just don't open it back up again .. if it backfired we'd have to close it again. And that's the worst thing you can do, give us freedom and then take it away."
On the other hand, U.S. President Donald Trump said the border would open "pretty soon", adding that "Canada would like it opened." But a survey conducted earlier this month revealed that 90% of Canadians want to keep the strict border restrictions in place, The Toronto Starreports.
Real costs Down Under: The consequences of closing borders within the countries themselves are very real too. Australia has closed its international borders to anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident since March, but the closing of its internal borders this summer and difference of restrictions between states has also divided the country in an unprecedented manner and created vivid tensions.
"So it's not like "Oh we put the border up, everything's OK and everybody's protected," no — there are real costs to that too" Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Sky News. He has pressed states to reopen by Christmas, as anti-lockdown protests erupted in Victoria, the epicentre of the country's latest wave of cases, at the beginning of September.
The national daily The Australian called Queensland border rules "horrendously cruel" as requests for exemptions to attend funerals were denied while the country's PM said his office has been swamped with letters from Australians with "heartbreaking" stories of citizens being denied medical care and other vital services.
Some states are currently starting to ease restrictions: South Australia is reopening its borders with New South Wales this week, after the latter registered no new cases in two weeks. "A victory for clear, evidence-based policy in the sometimes emotional debate about the role state borders should play in controlling COVID-19", stated The Sydney Morning Herald, which accused other states of adopting "less transparent and evidence-based approach", such as Western Australia, which has refused to disclose any date for reopening.