The Canada-U.S. border closure has been extended yet again, and while the move is touted as a public health measure, it also highlights political pressures facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The border was first closed to non-essential travel, with few exceptions, on March 21, and has been extended five times in an effort to prevent COVID-19 contagion in Canada. The U.S. hasn’t blocked Canadians from flying into the country, but Canada has not offered the same privilege to American citizens. According to World Health Organization data, Canada has reported an illness rate of 3,255 per one million. Conversely, the U.S. has recorded an infection rate of 16,293 per million—five times higher than Canada’s. The U.S. death rate is also more than double Canada’s, and the world’s supposed superpower accounts for nearly one-quarter of COVID-19 cases worldwide.
As it stands, the border closure remains in effect until at least September 21.
The move is both useful from a public health perspective and from a political one—given Canadians widely support the closure, despite the economic impact—experts say.
According to public health experts, the border closure represents one of many strategies, on top of physical distancing measures, that curb disease spread.
Dr. Shelley Deeks with Public Health Ontario said border restrictions allow countries to factor in COVID-19 realities elsewhere and adapt accordingly.
At the pandemic’s onset, clusters of COVID-19 were most visible in Wuhan, China, regions of South Korea, and in Italy. “The risk of acquiring the virus differs based on location—border closures restrict entry whenever there are different geographic areas of disease,” Deeks said.
Deeks said because asymptomatic people can unknowingly pass on COVID-19, it’s important to pursue public health measures that mitigate unintentional spread of the virus. She was unable to comment on the political implication of the move, and said she will follow federal public health advice closely.
Dr. Anne Gatignol, a professor with McGill University’s department of medicine, said it is “extremely important to keep the U.S.-Canada border closed as long as the U.S. does not control the epidemic.”
Canada’s COVID-19 situation is stable compared to the U.S., but if sick Americans were let into the country, new outbreaks could surface, Gatignol said. She added Canada could introduce exceptions to the closure—for example, allowing binational couples to visit each other as long as they quarantine after crossing the border—but all exceptions should be limited. (In June, Trudeau relaxed the closure slightly by allowing immediate family members in both countries to visit each other, but everyone entering Canada must quarantine for two weeks.)
“We have made a lot of efforts, we do not want to see our efforts ruined by people less concerned going back and forth between the two countries,” Gatignol said.
Gatignol acknowledged the economic and political pressures associated with the U.S.-Canada border closures, which is the world’s longest demilitarized border.
Last month, 29 members of congress in the U.S. wrote a letter, asking Canada for a plan that outlines a gradual reopening of the border. The leaders said the ongoing border closure creates unnecessary tension and uncertainty, as it exists now.
“As members representing congressional districts along the U.S. northern border, we understand the importance of prioritizing the safety of our communities as we all navigate the complex calculation of minimizing public health risks and resuming economic activity,” the letter states. “However, the social and economic partnership between our two nations necessitates a clear pathway forward.”
The letter asks for a comprehensive reopening plan that takes into account regional differences along the border, as well as options for eased restrictions, like allowing people who own property on both sides of the border to cross it.
Despite pressure from the U.S., Trudeau’s decision to keep the border closed is an “easy one,” according to Krzysztof Pelc, a political science professor with McGill University.
“From Canada’s standpoint, it does not make political sense to reopen unless things change significantly,” Pelc said.
Pelc acknowledged that the closure comes with economic costs for Canada, but for now they’re “manageable”: essential travel, which includes cross border trade, is permitted. And while tourism has taken a hit on both sides of the border, the Canadian towns that are hurting the most “are willing to bear that cost in order not to be exposed to greater risks of infection,” he said. The travel sector, particularly airlines, has applied pressure on Trudeau to ease border restrictions to no avail.
Plus, “the U.S. have not exactly been cultivating a climate of cooperation,” Pelc said.
Trump recently imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum, a move that did not bode well with Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Trump also tried to block a shipment of N95 masks to Canada back in April. Canada has retaliated following aluminum tariffs, but did not react when Trump blocked the N95 mask shipment.
In July, a poll found that more than 80 percent of Canadians surveyed supported the border closure.
“Ultimately, politicians are beholden to their domestic audiences, no matter the geopolitical consequences,” Pelc said. “Which means that so long as the coronavirus rates do not decline in the US, Canadian popular opinion for reopening the border won’t budge, and Trudeau will have every reason to keep the border closed.”
Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson with the Ministry for Public Safety, said that “the decision on when to reopen our border will be made by Canadians for Canadians.” Power added that keeping Canadians safe is the government’s priority and all decisions will be based on public health evidence.
Trudeau has reiterated the same sentiment in the past, and has maintained that travel essential for economic viability will continue regardless of how long the border closure lasts—which could potentially mean under a new president following this fall’s election.
In a statement to VICE News, a spokesperson for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Michael Gwin, acknowledged that the U.S. is in a difficult position.
“Donald Trump's total failure on COVID-19 has left America isolated and alone with the world's worst outbreak of the virus, even as our closest allies like Canada are better able to control its spread and safely re-open their countries,” Gwin said. “The simple fact is that we won't be able to fully restore travel and cross-border exchanges with countries like Canada until we get the pandemic under control.”
Canada’s border is also closed to the rest of the world, and experts say that likely won’t change for the foreseeable future. Trump’s governing style may be part of the reason, global health specialist Steven Hoffman told CBC News.
If Canada opened its doors to people around the world, but not Americans, "We'd have one very angry American president that might further target our country with any kind of punitive reaction, which would not be good for Canadians,” Hoffman said.
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