API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on four areas: technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have closed their borders. But now, they are starting to reopen them, hoping to resume economic and social activities.
Face-to-face diplomacy is resuming as well. In Hawaii on June 17, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party Politburo. The following day, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to London and traded awkward bows with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they maintained social distancing.
While international travel is gradually resuming, public health experts are expressing alarm that relaxation of border control measures will inevitably lead to a further spread of COVID-19 infections.
Global economic and social activities, as well as international politics, have progressed with countries opening their borders. On the other hand, as long as national borders are open, nations will continuously be faced with this invisible threat.
So how can counties reopen their borders safely in the era of the coronavirus pandemic?
Crossing national borders is, essentially, not easy. Numerous migrants have tried in vain in recent years to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to escape conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. And although the European refugee crisis peaked in 2015, more than 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea every year since.
Today, however, it is not only the people fleeing from Syria who are having a hard time crossing national borders. Government leaders and company executives, who were flying freely, are now not able to travel across national boundaries.
COVID-19 has spread quickly throughout the world via travelers, people on business trips and those returning to their home countries. Under such circumstances, Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand were quick to ban the entry of people from countries with a large number of infections. Other nations followed suit and adopted stricter border control.
An increase in the global movement of people contributed to the spread of the virus, and, ironically, resulted in a situation in which people are forced to stay inside national borders.
Closing the borders dealt a heavy blow to the global economy. Since people are required to self-quarantine for 14 days after entering many countries, it has become difficult for company executives to travel abroad as freely as they did before the pandemic. A sharp decline in international flights has threatened the airline industry and affected other industries as well, including the medical supply chain, which has relied on air cargo for passenger flights.
China and South Korea were the first to resume international movements of people by signing a fast-track entry agreement that exempted business professionals from strict quarantine measures. If travelers test negative on COVID-19 tests before and upon arrival, their self-quarantine periods are largely shortened.
On May 17, Samsung Electronics Co. Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong traveled to China and visited the firm’s semiconductor manufacturing plant in Xian. For the trip, Lee took polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests multiple times, before leaving South Korea, after arriving in China and after returning to South Korea. Carrying a medical certificate with a negative coronavirus certification, which has now arguably become more important for travel than a passport, Lee managed to complete his business trip without a 14-day quarantine. His three-day trip, taken when the two countries succeeded in containing the first wave of infections, is said to have been backed by the South Korean government, eager to resume economic activities with China.
It is relatively easy for a country to reopen its borders to countries whose COVID-19 infections are contained or about the same as its own. For the first round of candidates to ease its entry ban for, Japan chose Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand, all of which had relatively low numbers of cases and COVID-19-related deaths.
Meanwhile, some European countries allowed people to travel within EU member states and Schengen-associated states before the start of the summer vacation season. They also lifted travel restrictions for visitors from countries with relatively low numbers of infections, including Japan and Australia.
The common challenge for many governments is how to reopen their borders to other countries where the spread of infections is more serious than its own — particularly European countries and the United States.
Epidemiologists evaluate risks of easing entry bans. If a government allows in people from countries where infections are spreading, it is not possible to completely prevent infected people from entering if PCR tests are conducted on all the travelers arriving at airports, even if all of them are requested to self-quarantine for two weeks.
According to simulations conducted in June by Hiroshi Nishiura, a former professor at Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine and currently at Kyoto University School of Public Health and Graduate School of Medicine, if 10 infected people from overseas enter Japan each day, there will be a 98.7 percent chance of a large-scale outbreak occurring within three months.
While PCR tests are generally regarded as highly accurate, the true accuracy rate is about 70 percent, which means about 30 percent of infected people receive false-negative results. There is also the risk of secondary infection if travelers under self-quarantine move out of designated areas while waiting for test results.
Whether to reopen national borders, especially to European countries and the United States, where infections are spreading, demands a political decision that involves balancing health risks and economic benefits.
There are three points governments need to take into consideration.
The first is whether public health surveillance and testing systems for COVID-19 at airports is being sufficiently implemented. To prevent the entry of infected people from abroad, it is essential to detect such travelers upon arrival, quickly and accurately.
Although PCR tests are not perfect, when the tests are not conducted on everyone arriving at airports, there will naturally be a higher possibility of infections spreading from overseas travelers. To strengthen testing capabilities, it is necessary to increase the number of testing facilities and members of staff, and to develop methods to conduct tests safely, easily, quickly and as accurately as possible.
PCR tests using saliva samples are already being implemented, and a new testing method to detect the virus from saliva samples, called signal amplification by ternary initiation complexes (SATIC), will help reduce infection risks of those conducting the tests and boost the testing capacity of border control authorities.
From the viewpoint of logistics, it is also necessary to increase the capacity of accommodation facilities for arrivals waiting for test results, the capacity to transport them to the facilities and the number of personnel available to run them.
The second point is to decide on who should be allowed to travel to the country. It is necessary to set priorities and quotas for accepting people in different categories based on domestic needs. For instance, in Japan, relatives of people living in the country, senior government officials, professionals, company executives, international students and foreign workers should be prioritized.
On July 9, the government accepted a visit to Tokyo by Stephen Biegun, U.S. deputy secretary of state and the U.S. special representative for North Korea. Deputy Secretary Biegun, accompanied by Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary for North Korea, was the first senior government official from a country on Japan’s entry ban list to be admitted.
On the following day, the second day of Biegun’s visit to Japan, Kim Yo Jong, first vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, released a long press statement which said her country’s denuclearization was “not possible at this point in time.” Deputy Secretary Biegun’s visit represented an excellent opportunity for Japan and the U.S. to show the world their close cooperation on North Korea. Such visits by dignitaries are likely to increase.
The third point is whether there is a sufficient system to monitor and contact-trace travelers after they enter the country. People should be required to submit their contact information and travel plans beforehand, and public health authorities should be able to confirm their whereabouts.
Employing a contact-tracing app should be useful to keep track of their movements. One idea would be to link the app to location-based services such as traffic guides, tourist information and free Wi-Fi spot searches.
Share health data
As governments relax travel restrictions with bilateral agreements, international travel will gradually resume. And, at the same time, moves to restrict entry could be retaken in line with certain criteria.
The key to controlling border movements in the COVID-19 era would be to increase efficiency in the procedure and standardize it based on multilateral agreements. It would be necessary to create rules to recognize health data on negative test results from various countries.
There are a couple of ways to share health data among nations.
One is to issue a certificate like the “International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis” (ICVP, sometimes called the “yellow card”) for yellow fever. A yellow card is an internationally recognized certificate issued based on the format regulated by the World Health Organization, and many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America require travelers to present it along with a passport upon entry. If the certificate is issued in paper form, it can be shown at immigration control in developing countries as well. Such certificates, however, should be issued for COVID-19 only after effective vaccines are developed and become available for people around the world.
Another option is to establish a database of travelers’ health data that can be shared among countries or for which a common format can be developed.
It would be best to utilize the “Advance Passenger Information (API)” system, which collects and transfers electronic data on flight passengers and crew to prevent illegal entry of terrorists and smuggling. The system has been adopted at immigration control in the airports of countries including the United States, Japan, China and India, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has been encouraging nations to introduce the system. It is one of the international rules that the U.S. led and operated with the cooperation of authorities and airline operators.
Standardization of national border management has been introduced recently, mainly in Europe, where immigration control is directly linked to the economy and national security.
In an island nation such as Japan, immigration control policy has not been a high priority compared with places such as Europe, which is adjacent to the Middle East, and the U.S. which adjoins Latin America.
Japan has the world’s third-largest economy and a huge number of overseas business travelers. As Japan has, so far, kept the number of deaths from COVID-19 low compared with other G7 countries, it can play the role of a rule-shaper as countries move to resume international travel in the coronavirus era.
For instance, six countries in the Indo-Pacific region participating in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore — and Taiwan have been even more successful than Japan in containing COVID-19 infections.
Japan should proactively take part in creating rules to resume international travel in cooperation with countries in the Indo-Pacific region that share same values. Also, it is crucial for Japan to work closely with the U.S., which has been taking a leadership role in global migration. Such cooperative rule-making initiatives should also include China.
In order to let people cross national borders once again, international cooperation to create rules on global migration is inevitable, in the same way as cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is needed.
Yoshiyuki Sagara is an API fellow.
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