Can Border Closures Control a Pandemic?


The rapid implementation of targeted and total border closures at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 spurred frustration and confusion amidst travelers and scientific advisory councils. Did these measures have an effect on slowing the circulation of the pandemic, and were they justified as a means to protect population health?


Funded by the Government of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, targeted border closures – travel restrictions on the entry of a passenger from one or more countries – and total border closures – travel restrictions of a passenger from from any country, were not shown to be effective in controlling the spread of infectious diseases such as influenza, Ebola, and other coronaviruses. Despite these closures being ineffective and illegal under the International Health Regulations (IHRs), the global use of national border closures at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented in number and scale. 

In 2020, the number of national border closures rose dramatically from two targeted closures on Jan 26th, to 38 targeted closures on Feb 29, to 51 targeted and 115 total closures on Mar 31, 2020. Prior evidence on the effectiveness of border closures is mixed and derives largely from mathematical models. We evaluate the implementation of border closures using an array of approaches, exploring questions surrounding the conditions in which national border closures may have had an impact on the transmission of COVID-19, the political realities surrounding the implementation of border closures, and the profound legal and political implications of border closures’ impacts on epidemiology and global solidarity.

The tension behind the implementation and potential violations of the IHRs lead to questions concerning the perceived benefits and consequences of national border closures. With the use of border closures increasingly affecting citizens from several countries around the world, the need for sound, empirical research evidence has never been more necessary. The initial months of the COVID-19 outbreak present an ideal opportunity for the use of quasi-experimental methods to assess whether and under what conditions national border closures affected the transmission of COVID-19.

Key findings

  • Targeted border closures, applied in early February 2020, did not slow the spread of  the COVID-19 pandemic globally but total border closures, applied in March 2020, did  temporarily slow the spread of the pandemic globally.
  • Total border closures were more likely than targeted border closures to slow  transmission within countries. Early implementation and targeted closures so extensive that they resemble total border closures were the most likely to be effective.
  • While border closures can temporarily slow pandemic spread, uncertain results and  negative social and economic impacts make border closures unlikely to be the best  policy response for most countries. They should only be deployed in rare circumstances  and with great caution.


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