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As COVID-19 spread around the world, countries fought against the invisible threat by restricting people’s movements — from entry bans and strict lockdowns to softer lockdowns like Japan’s state of emergency.

Each government took a completely different approach in how to restrict the freedom of movement domestically and internationally. But in the end, how should governments implement effective border control measures to restore the freedom of movement?

China was initially reluctant to disclose the actual situation of the COVID-19 outbreak within the country, which allowed many people to continue to travel freely across national borders. But after China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, Beijing took extremely strict measures to curb the spread of the virus, almost ignoring the freedom of movement of its own citizens and mobilizing every possible technology. Its strong enforcement capabilities stunned many people around the globe.

In fact, China became one of the first countries to regain freedom of movement in the wake of COVID-19.

European countries, which have a strong track record on human rights and guarantee freedom of movement, also imposed lockdowns and strengthened border control measures.

Japan issued a state of emergency last April and managed to control the spread of infections through a soft lockdown with movement restriction requests that are neither compulsory nor punitive.

To review how Japan prepared for and responded to the COVID-19 crisis during the first half of 2020, the Asia Pacific Initiative established a commission to investigate the government’s response on the pandemic and published a report in October, which was submitted to the prime minister. The English version was published on Jan. 8.

The report revealed that restricting people’s movements through a state of emergency and entry bans were difficult decisions for Japan’s senior leadership to make. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had been advocating his package of Go To campaigns to recover the economy since he was serving as chief Cabinet secretary, was forced to issue a fresh state of emergency on Jan. 7.

What makes it difficult to contain the virus is that it is transmissible from a pre-symptomatic patient to other people.

About 45% of human-to-human transmissions of the virus take place before infected people develop symptoms. People with COVID-19 infections become contagious two days before they first develop symptoms, meaning they can transmit the virus to others even before they start to cough and have fever.

Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, was placed under lockdown in January 2020, the first area of many around the world to be closed off for periods of the year. | CHINA DAILY / VIA REUTERS
Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, was placed under lockdown in January 2020, the first area of many around the world to be closed off for periods of the year. | CHINA DAILY / VIA REUTERS

Another characteristic of COVID-19 is that its incubation period — the time from exposure to the virus to the development of symptoms — ranges from one to 14 days.

It is difficult to detect the virus in infected people during the latency period through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests since the amount of virus is still low. This led governments to request people traveling beyond national borders to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result and quarantine for 14 days.

This effectively trapped people within national borders, since the rules mean they can’t make short business trips or travels.

There was a brighter perspective last summer. Countries gradually resumed social and economic activities, relaxing border control measures, especially to rebuild supply chains, manage sensitive technologies by global companies and shore up the tourism industry during the vacation period.

Japan resumed travel to and from countries with low infection rates in East Asia such as Vietnam. This was welcome news for factories and farms which were eagerly waiting technical interns to arrive in Japan from overseas.

Although many developing countries tried to lock down their borders, they could not tolerate further damage to their economy and chose to coexist with the virus, reopening to international movement and relaxing their guard against COVID-19.

Borders closed again

But borders, which were gradually reopening in many countries, closed again after, on Dec. 19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the spread of a new variant of the virus, which could be up to 70% more transmissible.

In fact, the virus has mutated a number of times during the pandemic. The Science magazine reported that the European variant that spread since February last year is more transmissible than the one first detected in Wuhan at the end of 2019.

Since then, the virus has gone through further mutations and become a greater threat.

The United Kingdom decided on a second lockdown at the end of October with hopes to lift it by Christmas. The daily number of new infections in the country was roughly 13,000 on Dec. 2 with the pace slightly slowing down, but a month later the number rose fivefold to around 65,000 a day, prompting the government to implement a third lockdown on Jan. 5.

The new, more contagious variant is retrospectively identified as having first emerged in late September, according to an assessment by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control released on Dec. 29.

In response to the detection of a new variant in the U.K., other European countries, which had been cautious about restricting freedom of movement, quickly closed their borders.

People who were trying to cross the Strait of Dover to head to France before the U.K. officially left the European Union on Dec. 31 were stranded in Britain, while much of the world, starting from European countries and spreading to the Middle East and Central and South America, ended up banning entries from the U.K.

Will freedom of movement return?

It appears it will take time to reopen national borders.

According to the 2020 edition of the International Migration Outlook by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), almost all OECD countries restricted admission to foreigners following the onset of the pandemic, drastically changing the flow of international migration.

In OECD countries, the international movement of people plummeted and mobility is unlikely to return to prior levels in the near future, as online international conferences, teleworking and e-commerce have become the new normal. People are shifting their workplaces and places to communicate from the crowded metropolitan areas to cyberspace.

Even so, it is essential for human beings to regain freedom of movement by containing the spread of infections in order to restore economic and social activities.

Flights from China and South Korea were among the first to be canceled as Japan's air routes closed down in the wake of the spread of the virus. | REUTERS
Flights from China and South Korea were among the first to be canceled as Japan’s air routes closed down in the wake of the spread of the virus. | REUTERS

Aside from restricting people’s movements, it is necessary to continue taking effective measures to prevent virus transmission, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Vaccinations should also be implemented swiftly after confirming their safety.

At a time when national borders are becoming prominent again, it is becoming geoeconomically important to assess whether the freedom of movement of people beyond borders can be regained.

Each country has accumulated best practices and lessons learned regarding border control. Now is the time to share this wisdom around the world and put it into practice.

Three border control measures

Border control involves three measures: travel restriction, strengthening quarantine inspections and surveillance, and monitoring quarantine after entries.

It is necessary to come up with and implement decisive policies quickly and flexibly on these measures based on situational analysis and risk assessment with the best possible accuracy.

The top priority for border control is travel restriction, namely entry bans, government warnings against traveling abroad, and restrictions in issuing visas.

Travel restriction is a policy that is supposed to be avoided in infectious disease crises. But at the end of January last year, Japan decided to ban the entry of foreign nationals from China’s Hubei Province in order to prevent the inflow of people infected with COVID-19.

The number of infections found among people coming in from China declined in early February, totaling only 11 cases excluding those confirmed at airport quarantine checks. But infections detected in people coming from Europe, Egypt and Southeast Asia increased sharply instead, reaching nearly 200 as of the end of March.

As Japan was slow to introduce a travel ban for people going to and returning from Europe, the nation allowed the virus to spread domestically as a result.

Learning from this experience, Japan was quick to respond to the emergence of a new variant. As the variant was detected first in the U.K. and then in other countries such as South Africa, on Dec. 26 Japan temporarily halted new entries of foreign nationals from all areas worldwide.

It also temporarily suspended an arrangement for allowing business travelers from 11 East Asian countries and regions to enter Japan.

Another important aspect for border control is to reinforce the monitoring of all people entering Japan, including Japanese nationals and non-Japanese residents, to prevent the inflow of the new variant.

All those who enter Japan are required to submit a certificate of a negative test result, conduct a test upon arrival and self-quarantine for 14 days. These measures also reflect lessons learned from last year.

The API report on the government’s COVID-19 response revealed that Japan was able to detect an inflow of infections from Wuhan at an early stage.

In view of the expected surge in the number of visitors from overseas due to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Japan has, since 2019, been preparing a surveillance system to detect suspicious infectious diseases. For this purpose, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases was already ready to inspect any patient with symptoms similar to pneumonia found in Wuhan.

Thanks to the system, on Jan. 15 last year the institute detected the first case of COVID-19 infection in Japan, the second case reported outside China after one in Thailand.

A Chinese man living in Japan developed a fever while he was temporarily staying in Wuhan and was diagnosed as having symptoms of pneumonia after returning to Japan. Because he was already in the stage of recovery, the amount of virus in the specimen required for PCR testing was low, and the initial test was negative. However, since the patient was a returnee from Wuhan and had fever and pneumonia, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases conducted additional tests and barely confirmed he had been infected with COVID-19.

Japan’s detection of its first COVID-19 case came days before Taiwan’s on Jan. 21. Japan’s surveillance system can be highly evaluated, considering New York was unable to confirm its first case until March.

Narita International Airport PCR Center, operated by Nippon Medical School Foundation, opened in late 2020 to offer tests to people needing proof of their negative infection status in other nations. | REUTERS
Narita International Airport PCR Center, operated by Nippon Medical School Foundation, opened in late 2020 to offer tests to people needing proof of their negative infection status in other nations. | REUTERS

Japan initially had limited PCR testing capabilities, but it greatly boosted its inspection system by introducing quantitative antigen tests.

In response to the new variant, on Dec. 23 last year Japan strengthened its inspection of people arriving from the U.K. and detected the new variant on Dec. 25 in five people who tested positive at airport quarantine checks.

As for people who entered Japan, the government initially asked them to self-quarantine for 14 days, but there have been an increasing number of cases in which people stayed at home or at hotels they reserved for themselves.

But cases emerged in which people who tested negative at airport inspections were actually infected and transmitted the virus to others by dining together during the required self-quarantine period.

In order to prevent the new variant from coming into the country, the government decided to ask people coming into Japan to stay at accommodation facilities designated by the quarantine station.

Monitoring people during self-quarantine, however, is not easy. The government has not obtained location information (GPS) to track such people in fear of infringing on human rights and privacy.

Learning from Taiwan

Japan could learn much from the quarantine monitoring system adopted by Taiwan.

In Taiwan, one person who had been obligated to quarantine at a hotel was fined 100,000 New Taiwan dollars (around ¥370,000) for going out of a room into a corridor for just eight seconds.

The Taiwanese government has been monitoring the radio waves of the cell phones of people under quarantine along with mobile phone carriers.

If a person under quarantine at home leaves their house and moves outside the range of the nearest radio tower, government authorities and the police will be notified. Those who violate their quarantine obligations will be fined up to NT$1 million and can be detained.

The Taiwanese government has implemented various rules one after another with experts immediately following the first report of a new coronavirus-related pneumonia in China.

Taiwan has been lauded for its quick and unambiguous response to the virus, and for the loyalty and adherence its people have shown. | REUTERS
Taiwan has been lauded for its quick and unambiguous response to the virus, and for the loyalty and adherence its people have shown. | REUTERS

It has swiftly and decisively taken strict measures, including monitoring people’s movements, even if they have meant restricting freedom of movement for some people. As a result, Taiwan has been able to go without imposing iron-fisted measures such as an islandwide lockdown.

The Taiwanese people are largely supporting the government, which has been successful in responding to the crisis.

According to London-based global public opinion organization YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker survey, the percentage of people in Japan who think the government is handling the issue of the coronavirus “very well” or “somewhat well” came to 42% as of May, while the percentage at the time was 90% for Taiwanese citizens. The rate in Taiwan remained above 80% through December.

A crisis encourages citizens to take action. In the initial response to COVID-19, citizens in many countries stood up in solidarity to fight against the virus. But it is impossible to depend only on such a sense of unity to continue the struggle amid uncertain prospects, and people are getting tired of being vigilant about the virus.

In such a situation, it is only government leaders who can resort to the last measure of restricting people’s movements with clear targets so that it will be implemented only to the extent necessary to achieve them.

The API report proposed revising the infectious disease control law to introduce penalties for those who refused to cooperate and compensation for those who cooperated.

In order to bring back freedom of movement, the government must conduct accurate risk assessment and implement policies quickly and decisively.

Yoshiyuki Sagara is a fellow at the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. API Geoeconomic Briefing, a series provided by API, looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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