Pandemics Close Borders—And Keep Them Closed

(Mar. 25, 2020) “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!” President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday morning. He offered no additional context, but it’s safe to assume the “this” in his tweet was the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, his administration has taken progressive action to strengthen borders and travel controls in response to the virus.

Trump isn’t alone: Leaders around the world have restricted nonessential travel to varying degrees, some sealing off their borders entirely, to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.They’re following a playbook centuries old, dating back to at least the Black Death of the 14th century. In fact, countering disease was one of the main justifications for early border controls at a time when boundaries between countries were marked more by contested territories than firm divisions. (It would not be until the 1600s that an atlas with delineated borders between European countries was published.)

In the past, these measures might have worked. But the history of disease-driven border lockdowns has some sobering lessons. One is that border controls tended to long outlast whatever crisis they were supposed to prevent, at the expense of trade and free movement. And they’re also very much a relic of their times. More recent disease eradication efforts, and the broad path of the coronavirus itself, show that prolonged border controls are more an expression of xenophobic policy than an enduring solution to an infectious threat. Today, there’s far more to gain through international cooperation than by keeping borders locked down.

A closer look at how governments successfully sealed off their countries in the past to prevent disease is enough to show that the scale of international travel and porousness of borders today is incompatible with such fixes long term, and that similar impulses today will take us only further from real solutions.

During the Black Death, the city-states of Italy used expanded border controls as part of their efforts to keep the plague at bay. Florence imposed fines on visitors from plague-affected cities and issued passes to travelers deemed healthy enough to move freely. In 1348, Venice began preventing ships in the harbor from docking for 30 days to see whether those on board came down with the plague. Venetian colonies and others followed suit. By 1383, Marseilles, France, had extended the isolation period to 40 days, leading to the to the term “quarantine” (from the Italian for 40: “quaranta”). Italian states used systems of armed patrol ships, observation posts and horse patrols to enforce disease controls that lasted until the 1850s.

The enforcement of that quarantine period was one of the earliest forms of regulating ship travel and was used during plague outbreaks for centuries afterward. The infrastructure and regulation for those systems became permanent, such as the designation of particular ports of entry and patrols to make sure they were used. The last European outbreak of plague attacked Marseilles in 1720, the result of lax enforcement of a quarantine on a ship from plague-ridden Cyprus.

After it subsided in Europe, the Black Death continued to ravage the Ottoman Empire. In the 1730s, Austria’s Sanitary Court Commission recommended a series of inspection stations along the border with Ottoman lands. People and goods were both quarantined, although practices and periods varied—tobacco leaves spread out and aired for seven days were considered purified, for example. Many travelers were held in quarantine for as long as 48 days, and if they developed plague symptoms, they could be shot. Similarly, evading the quarantine system was punishable by death. The system lasted until 1871.

Border controls against plague appeared to have helped—if you hold infected fleas and people in isolation for long enough, the fleas die and the people either die or get better. Certainly, the Austrian Empire remained free of plague after the middle of the 18th century.

And, perhaps as a result, travel and trade restrictions became an increasingly popular tool against the threat of new infections. The United States quarantined ships to prevent the spread of yellow fever in the 1790s, a practice repeated during subsequent outbreaks into the 19th century, and France briefly closed the border with Spain to prevent the spread of the same disease. In the 19th century, a number of countries briefly imposed quarantines in an attempt to protect against cholera.

Those controls, short of total exclusion, proved an ineffective tool against both diseases, in part because yellow fever is mosquito-borne and in part because, by the mid-19th century, it was simply too difficult to implement a leak-proof system of inspection, control and quarantine at borders. But that did not stop continued adoption of border controls.

As we see today with a surge in anti-Asian discrimination, it is not just that disease is associated with international travel and migration; it is associated with foreigners. This, too, is nothing new: Jews were blamed for the Black Death and burned to death in pogroms. The Irish were blamed for bringing cholera to the United States and the Italians for spreading polio. Tuberculosis was called “the Jewish disease.” Syphilis, first recorded in Europe infecting the armies of Charles VIII of France as he was fighting in Naples, was referred to as the Naples Disease, the Spanish sickness, the French Pox, the German Sickness and the Polish sickness as it spread—the name based on a combination of local prejudice and the course of infection. When it got to the Middle East, it was called “the European pestilence.”

Infection also became the justification for increasingly strict migration restrictions in countries, including in the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891, which provided a foundation for federal oversight of migration, banned criminals, polygamists, prostitutes, contract laborers, and those with a “loathsome or contagious disease.” It was increasingly used to selectively exclude ethnic groups considered undesirable. From 1898 to 1915, the proportion of immigrants denied access to the United States on medical grounds climbed from 2 percent to more than two-thirds. On the Mexican border, federal officials stripped migrants naked and showered them with kerosene. Some of America’s first undocumented immigrants were those who crossed unguarded sections of the Rio Grande rather than submit to the medical exam; up until that point, Mexican migrants hadn’t needed travel documents.

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