A bit over one year ago, leaders the world over closed their borders in the name of disease transmission mitigation. Some did so in what was an extension of policies enacted earlier, and others did so for the first time in generations. And more than a year after those initial measures were implemented, some countries remain committed to closure: in all ways and at all costs.
The Covid pandemic enticed governments to do far more than just cease leisure travel (a move that even the World Health Organization called futile during the last major global disease threat, the 2009 swine flu pandemic). No measure was off-limits this time around. Most countries closed their borders completely or partially, with no less than 77 issuing entry restrictions on March 16 alone. Roughly 65 percent of the world’s population of 7.7 billion people found themselves in shuttered nations. Global air passenger traffic dropped by 60 percent. Immigration ground to a halt.
Political rhetoric rapidly turned nationalist, centering on the value of surviving based solely on domestic capabilities. Production was to stay confined within a nation’s borders; goods were not to serve peoples beyond a country’s own. In Germany, for instance, the earliest days of the pandemic were marked by a diplomatic spat after Chancellor Angela Merkel banned most exports of protective medical equipment; Switzerland and Austria, the would-be recipients of hundreds of thousands of face masks, chafed.
The scientific basis for border closures is questionable both theoretically and practically. But the dominant political and economic arguments, which proclaim the necessity of helping oneself before helping others, are altogether fraught. This pandemic and associated nonpharmaceutical measures have not been alleviated by innovators and producers serving only their native lands––rather, they have been dwarfed by the global exchange of goods and knowledge, a supreme success story of international networks.
The vaccine jointly produced by Pfizer, an American company led by Greek chief executive Albert Bourla, and BioNTech, a Germany-based biotech startup led by two Turkish-Germans, is a testament to collaboration across borders. BioNTech founders Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci both come from immigrant backgrounds; Sahin having come to Germany at the age of four, Tureci born there to a physician who immigrated from Istanbul. It was in Germany where they decided to build the pharmaceutical giant that would ultimately produce one of the earliest successful vaccines.
The significance of two scientists from immigrant backgrounds staging this massive success is difficult to understate. Johannes Vogel, a member of the German Parliament, rightly observed, “If it were up to critics of capitalism and globalization, there would be no cooperation with Pfizer. But that makes us strong: immigration country, market economy & open society!”
In the United States, even heavy-handed restrictions on immigration––which were designed to preserve jobs for the strained American workforce, albeit clumsily––featured carve outs that highlighted the necessity of foreign help. Last year, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order that temporarily suspended immigration into the U.S. in order to “ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens.” Even so, hundreds of thousands of temporary work visas––which, among other things, permit immigrants to fulfill our massive agricultural needs––were not challenged, nor were visas for foreign physicians and nurses seeking entry. Even unwittingly, a president as hostile toward immigration as Trump admitted how important it is for immigrants to work where they want and where their skills can be put to good use (a topic AIER has covered previously).
The Covid pandemic proved conclusively that people and knowledge must flow freely––and that goods should as well. Indeed, it is during crises that goods, services, skills, and ideas should travel as far and as fast as possible. The supply shock that China experienced in February 2020 led to a global demand shock that, in turn, prompted a wave of economic nationalism. Many critics pointed to faltering supply chains as proof that production must be kept domestic in the post-pandemic era. This, however, would be a short-sighted conclusion.
It was government-imposed restrictions––which artificially disrupted supply chains, thereby giving politicians ammunition for economic isolationism––that got us here. By April 24, 2020, over 80 countries and customs jurisdictions had imposed restrictions on exports. Customs clearance at borders became slow, costly, or well nigh impossible. Left to their own devices, global supply chains likely would have fared just fine.
What’s more, one of the most salient examples of so-called supply chain failure during the pandemic––the toilet paper shortage––was actually an example of panic buying, not a weak supply chain. Pandemic protectionism, like lockdowns and so many other aspects of disease mitigation policies, rely upon little more than strawman arguments.
In reality, we are made better by the sum of our efforts, regardless of the artificial political barriers that divide us. And collaboration is more possible at this point in history than ever before. Nearly 250 years on, Adam Smith’s exaltation of free trade rings true:
If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better to buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage…
It is certainly not employed to the greatest advantage when it is directed towards an object which it can buy cheaper than it can make it…The industry of a country, therefore, is thus turned away from a more, to a less advantageous employment, and the exchangeable value of its annual produce, instead of being increased, according to the intention of the lawgiver, must necessarily be diminished by every such regulation.
It was globalism that enabled researchers and startup executives to produce and distribute the vaccines that have now reached hundreds of millions of people around the world. Fair-weather trade wars look more and more nonsensical with each passing month of pandemic-era restrictions on exchange.
This pandemic is not ending because borders were sufficiently impenetrable. But it must be said that its effects have been mitigated because many of the most essential forms of capital continued to flow. If the free movement of people, goods, and ideas could pull the world out of one of its darkest chapters, there’s no telling what the same openness could yield during brighter days. And, hopefully, will.