Although the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, one thing is already clear: most nations, including the United States, have struggled to effectively contain the spread of this deadly new virus. Countries have adopted a wide range of unilateral measures to counter the pandemic with highly varying degrees of success; some have nearly contained the virus and have reduced the mortality rate, while others have continued to experience mounting loss of life and severe economic damage. The reasons for these varied outcomes are complex and include factors that cannot be controlled by governments battling the pandemic (e.g. the size and heterogeneity of the country) but other factors are squarely within a government’s power to control.
One striking difference between several of the governments that have been most successful against COVID-19 and those that have not is the effective use of border screening to slow down and contain the spread of the virus. Countries that implemented border screening measures up front, including New Zealand and Japan, have seen dramatically lower COVID-19 death rates1 and less immediate damage to their economies. While life in these countries has resumed some semblance of normalcy eight months into the pandemic, the United States continues to face staggering human and economic costs, including an unemployment rate more than twice what it was before the pandemic, an ongoing recession, and, at the time of writing, 200,000 Americans who have lost their lives.
Although no nation has developed a truly comprehensive border strategy for countering a global pandemic, the results from countries that acted swiftly in this regard are promising, and what we know about the spread of COVID-19 supports the idea that early mitigation at the border is critical. As seen in New Zealand, border screening of all arrivals coupled with aggressive contact tracing can prove highly effective when implemented in the early stages of a pandemic, before large-scale community spread occurs, and the United States should be prepared to take similar steps.