The WHO Recommends Avoiding Border Closures During Pandemics. Why Did People Want Them Closed During COVID-19 Outbreaks?

10 July 2023, 1922 EDT

Despite existing international regulations advising countries to coordinate and minimize border restrictions, an overwhelming number of countries closed and restricted their borders during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A report in April 2020 showed that 91% of the world’s population lived in a country with COVID-19-related travel restrictions, restrictions on people from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents. Strong majorities in many countries were also supportive of these restrictions.

Despite the intuitive appeal that border closures are effective tools to limit infection, the epidemiological case for them is not straightforward. In even the most favorable circumstances, border closures may only delay the arrival of a disease by a few weeks. Indeed, most recent evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic shows “no evidence in favor of international border closures.” 

There are several compelling reasons for this. For one, it is almost guaranteed that viruses and pathogens will eventually infiltrate from any direction. Even while hermetically sealing off all borders and airports and ensuring strict enforcement is not feasible, sluggish governments would only do so after the disease has already entered the country. 

For the other, border closures have other negative consequences, including disrupting the medical supply chain and providing a false sense of security, limiting the willingness of the government to use more effective measures tackling the disease, such as setting up testing, isolation, and vaccination policies. Closures can even be counter-productive by creating incentives for countries to intentionally conceal and downplay outbreaks, which will delay the discovery of outbreaks and any responses to them in the first place.

For these reasons, 196 countries agreed to the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) in 2005 and committed to following World Health Organization (WHO) guidance advising against travel and trade restrictions. Fittingly, the WHO has always advised against border closures during pandemics. As researchers studying the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy decision-making, we were interested in examining whether the public knew about existing regulations, what the drivers of public support for border closures are, and how public opinion shaped the decisions to adopt border closures as a response to global health emergencies. 

As early as the 1850s, intense public demand for strict border policies was cited as an obstacle to reducing border restrictions. The COVID-19 pandemic was no exception. Concerns about the adverse effects of the pandemic led to high levels of support for border restrictions at the early stages of the pandemic. However, during the height of the outbreak, the WHO continued to advise against border restrictions, and research continues to suggest that these restrictions possess limited effectiveness. One possible explanation of why nearly every country closed borders in spite of these findings lies in an understanding of domestic politics. 

We argue that public support for border closures plays a pivotal role in why governments close borders in response to pandemics. After all, governments implement policies that respond to public pressures, especially in democracies and when a policy concerns a matter of life and death. In fact, the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations (2005) concluded that government decisions on border measures were “often taken only at the political level, without technical input, and outside the remit of health authorities” and found that public anxiety was cited as one of the most common rationales for border closures submitted to them by member states. Despite the centrality of domestic politics and public mood in policy-making during pandemics, we know very little about why people are willing to demand border closures.

Our new research, published in the American Journal of Political Science, offers an explanation for the public demand for border closures at the beginning of a disease outbreak. Since governments, especially in democracies, respond to public pressure in designing and implementing their policies, it is essential to understand the drivers of public support for border closures to have a complete understanding of the border policies in response to global health emergencies. To this end, we fielded a cross-national survey experiment in the United States and the United Kingdom, allowing us to examine what drives people to call for closed borders during a pandemic. 

A New Study of Pandemic Politics

We recruited participants from the U.K. (1,599) and U.S. (1,625) in the Fall of 2020 on an online survey platform. We introduced the participants to a hypothetical scenario where a country is facing a disease outbreak in a neighboring country. We then randomly assigned participants to different versions of the survey, where we vary the death/infection rates in the neighboring country, the health capacity of the country in question, information about the WHO recommendations, and whether the country committed to following the IHR.

After this, we asked all respondents what they think the country should do with respect to its borders until the disease outbreak is under control. This allows us to compare support for border closures across groups that experienced different versions of the scenario (e.g., support for closures during a disease with 5 deaths and 500 infections compared to 110 deaths and 10,000 infections, or support for closures in a country with poor health capacity compared to world-class health capacity.)

What Drives Support for Closed Borders?

First, our findings suggest that the capacity of the healthcare system did not matter for whether individuals supported border closures. Second, we find limited evidence, primarily in the U.S., that increasing cases led to more support for closures. Finally, and most importantly, we found strong evidence that learning about WHO recommendations and legal obligations decreased support for border closures. 

Our results show that when informed about WHO’s guidance against border closures rooted in the scientific evidence on the lack of effectiveness of such measures, as well as their countries’ legal obligations to follow this guidance, people are considerably less likely to support border closures in response to pandemics. Governments’ immediate reaction to close borders and the overwhelming public support for these policies in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest the possibility that very few people were informed about this WHO guidance. 

To have a better understanding of the information environment the public was in at the time, we analyzed 66 newspapers in English-speaking democracies during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and calculated the share of the articles mentioning the WHO or IHR. Our examination reveals that these news sources devoted roughly no space informing the people about the WHO guidance against border closures and countries’ legal obligations to follow this guidance. Our news examination suggests that the mismatch between WHO guidance and government responses to the pandemic can be due to the failure of the mass media to inform the people about WHO’s recommendations against border closures and their countries’ prior commitments to follow WHO guidance. 

More Informed Citizens, Better Policy

Existing research shows that the probability of observing pandemics similar to COVID-19 is already high and may double in the coming decades. Therefore, there is increasing recognition that coordination of countries’ border policies is vital for timely, accurate outbreak detection and effective mitigation strategies. Despite the centrality of domestic politics in shaping border policies, little is known about the interplay between public opinion and governments’ border policies in response to global health emergencies. An effective response to pandemics requires public support on mitigation strategies that are in line with scientific evidence. 

Our findings imply that for the public to lend their support for border restrictions during pandemics, they need to be informed about the WHO’s guidance against border closures and their countries’ international commitments to follow this advice. Therefore, an effective response to pandemics requires policy-makers to strategize about how best to inform the public about WHO’s guidance and international commitment not to close borders. 

The WHO is also having internal conversations about revising IHR and its pandemic protocols for more effective policy-making. As a path to implement effective border strategies during future pandemics, our research suggests that the WHO can consider communication strategies targeting ordinary people with information about its guidance and IHR compliance. Additionally, they can consider using naming and shaming strategies to encourage member states’ compliance with its border recommendations. 

However, since WHO understandably prioritizes communicating information related to the pathogen and mitigation strategies and the organization is heavily reliant on member states for funding, neither the public communication strategies nor the naming and shaming routes may be feasible. Given the incentive structures in play, the question of how politicians and WHO can create public support for border policies in line with the health experts’ guidance will be an important one in managing the next pandemic.