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As the United States Lifts Travel Restrictions, Its New Vaccination Requirements Could Shape the Future of Global Mobility
Commentaries
October 2021

As the United States Lifts Travel Restrictions, Its New Vaccination Requirements Could Shape the Future of Global Mobility

Officer and travelers wearing PPE at Port Everglades, Florida
Gary Gillard/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Today’s news that the United States will lift border restrictions for fully vaccinated international travelers arriving by air or land beginning November 8 is the latest in a series of actions to loosen COVID-19-era travel restrictions. It follows last month’s announcement that the United States would lift travel restrictions for visitors from 33 countries, including Europe’s Schengen Area, Brazil, China, and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom recently decided to shrink its “red list” to just seven countries, and as of November, Australian citizens and residents will be allowed to leave and return to Australia without a special exception.

As advanced economies grow their vaccine rollout and work to safely reopen, these moves have been anticipated. But central to the recent U.S. announcement and underpinning others is an emerging and little-noted shift towards vaccination mandates for international travel, which brings numerous equity and technical considerations that must be addressed if these mobility-restoring actions are to achieve their stated goal of facilitating safe travel in the age of pandemic. And the fact that countries are still proceeding unilaterally, focused on keeping the virus out instead of coordinating globally to neutralize it, points to a persistent lack of coordination that augurs trouble ahead in bringing this pandemic to heel and readying for the next one.

The Diminishing Returns of Travel Restrictions

Ending pandemic travel restrictions in the United States is long overdue. Critics have observed that these curbs are arbitrary, costly, and ineffectual. Most of the barred countries have long had lower COVID-19 infection rates and higher vaccination outcomes than the United States, and testing requirements for all international arrivals means that the average domestic trip poses greater threat. The fact that Canadians could fly to the United States, but not drive across the land border, has been described as “a piece of epidemiological nonsense.” And the restrictions had been widely criticized for separating families, encapsulated in the hashtag #lovenottourism, and by businesses and the airline and tourism industries for its economic harms.

Perhaps more importantly, the scientific basis for travel measures remains unclear—at least at this stage of the pandemic. Some countries effectively used travel restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus or the timing of its arrival; a handful used them as part of a COVID-19 eradication strategy through a mix of border measures, contact tracing, hardline social distancing, and domestic lockdown/internal mobility measures. But for the most case, travel bans were imposed too late, as in the United States; and were too leaky, in that they had numerous exceptions for returning residents and family members who were not adequately screened. As time went on, the returns on border measures in any country with high levels of community transmission rapidly diminished.

Their persistence, therefore, is a reflection of some deeper malaise: a kind of pandemic policymaking where following the bumpy road of science has been politically difficult, especially in the context of uncertainty and political division. Narratives, for instance on the virus primarily coming from abroad, have taken hold among some groups. This has made border measures especially sticky. But there are also genuine difficulties in making decisions that balance the economic and social benefits of mobility against its public health risks, especially given the paucity of evidence on the role of travel restrictions in curbing the spread of asymptomatic pathogens, especially as new variants emerged.

The “try to please everyone approach” that has emerged instead, has been a worst-worlds scenario, since it neither facilitates cross-border mobility nor adequately prevents spread (as argued by Kelley Lee in our Moving Beyond Pandemic podcast). And even countries that pursued an eradication approach have been shifting gears in response to the elevated threat posed by the more contagious delta variant.

International Coordination in a Chaotic Landscape

Many countries have been plagued by the concertina effect of open-shut-open-shut as threat levels fell and rose again with the arrival of more contagious variants (seen in contrast, the U.S. approach, while arbitrary and imposing significant costs, had the small merit of being consistent). Pandemic-battling strategies, metrics, and measures have changed frequently in many countries, making the situation hard to predict for businesses and travelers. Publics need to understand and believe in the virtue of new rules; instead, we have seen frequent changes, complicated exceptions, and actions imposed without prior warning, leading to chaotic scenes at border checkpoints. And rules have often contradicted one another on different sides of a border, allowing people to move one way but not the other (as in the case of the U.S.-Canada border, with Canada opening to U.S. travelers in August and the United States not reciprocating until November).

Now that many advanced economies have reached a critical mass of vaccination and are trying to open up, they need to shift away from a policy of deterring travel to one that facilitates it. This means creating rules that are equitable, well-publicized, consistent, predictable, and parsimonious—meaning they are only there if needed. Put simply, rules that create a framework for human mobility to allow people to plan their lives.

Yet there are lingering question marks over the extent to which international coordination is even possible in the present moment. All of the recent decisions about reopening transatlantic travel have lacked reciprocity, for instance in the June decision by the European Union to put the United States on the safe list (and then remove it, after the summer tourism season) or in the United Kingdom’s decision in August to drop the requirement to quarantine vaccinated travelers from the United States. It is hard to see how a system that provides international coordination over health measures and the recognition of vaccine credentials could emerge if even firm allies cannot move in tandem.

Balancing Health and Equity in New Mobility Systems

Perhaps most importantly, the recent foot shuffles over transatlantic travel have provided cover for a major shift that has gone almost unnoticed: from vaccination as a fast track to travel, to the required ticket. According to the White House announcement, all foreign visitors (not just those traveling from the countries previously on the restrictions list) will need to demonstrate proof of vaccination as well as proof of a negative test. The United States is not alone. Some European Union countries and Canada have been moving in the same direction; while many offer the option to test in lieu of vaccination, Germany and Italy now limit travel for nonessential purposes to the vaccinated or previously infected. In a situation where only 2.5 percent of residents in low-income countries have received one dose, this will have the effect of locking much of the world out of cross-border travel. Indeed, the equity issues around vaccine access meant that the World Health Organization and Africa CDC have come out against vaccine requirements for travel, at least until the rollout is more even. And there are countless questions over the practical implementation of such a system, including which vaccines will be recognized and how to verify paper records. Already the EU Digital Covid Certificate has been inaccessible to many visitors and EU citizens vaccinated under different systems, and its growing use in much of public life risks locking people out of vital services and leisure activities. And many countries, including the United States and most in the Western Hemisphere, have yet to develop a common electronic vaccine record.

Clearly, vaccination requirements make for safer travel and help incentivize vaccination, but there are huge equity issues. Moreover, it is likely that the actions of the United States and European Union will set the standard for how other countries respond and these requirements could further cleave a wedge between movers and non-movers. Much of the conversation right now is about how to reduce fraud and ensure interoperability between different vaccine credential systems. But instead of getting hung up on 100 percent watertight enforcement, countries could consider ways to build the enabling infrastructure across the travel and mobility continuum, for instance by allowing travelers and migrants from countries with limited vaccine access to get vaccinated as part of their visa application process or on arrival. Another approach could be building in “nudges” and fast tracks (such as passport control priority lanes for vaccinated travelers) while maintaining a complementary system for those unable or unwilling to get vaccinated, based on testing and quarantine, as described in a recent Migration Policy Institute report.

All signs point to human mobility remaining costly and unequal in the coming years. But greater international collaboration and some creative ideas that facilitate safe travel could help get the world moving and mitigate some of these inequitable effects.