Border changes seen as COVID-19 bright spot

Senior U.S. official praises how Canada-U.S. and U.S.-Mexico borders have been managed to restrict spread of the virus

Rather than a disaster, the Canada-United States border has been a shining example of how to deal with crises, said trade experts on a Wilson Centre panel.

The way the Canada-U.S. border and U.S.-Mexico border have been managed during the COVID-19 crisis provides hope for the rest of North America’s economy.

“Instead of being an area of conflict and dissension and division, the border may have pointed the way to the kind of co-operation, the kind of balanced approach that may well be an example for our countries to employ even beyond the border region,” said Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

How the border was managed to restrict virus spread but still allow commerce and essential cross-border interaction is “a bright spot” in another otherwise grim pandemic situation, Bersin said.

The Wilson Centre is a Washington, D.C., think-tank that often focuses on Canada-U.S. issues. Its panel discussion on the border during COVID-19 highlighted work by government agencies, border officials and non-government players to keep essential commercial traffic flowing while stopping most of the flow of individuals across the border.

Kathryn Friedman, a University at Buffalo professor and expert on cross-border movements, said since the crisis began, passenger car traffic dropped about 97 percent in her region, bus traffic fell 100 percent but commercial traffic fell only 30 percent.

Essential goods are able to move back and forth, but the main human flows have been controlled while governments tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. The border has been working well in both allowing trade and in controlling spread of the pandemic.

“It’s serving as an example of diplomacy in action and a model that can be held up to the world,” said Friedman.

Solomon Wong, a trade consultant and board member of the Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance, said air freight has significantly increased between Canada and the U.S. as a way of moving goods.

“Cargo has really filled the void (left by the near collapse of passenger air travel),” said Wong.

“It’s really one that has provided the bandwidth for critical supplies, as well as keeping commerce going: medicine, cellphone parts, strawberries,” he said citing examples.

Air Canada, for instance, converted a Boeing 777 from passenger to cargo use in six days.

Many industries reliant on individual travel back and forth between the U.S. and Canada will not see a return to normal any time soon.

“Industries that rely on cross border trade and travel and investment and consumerism are going to be heavily impacted,” said Friedman.

Yet when it comes to quickly and effectively dealing with disease risk and flow, and ways of assessing and mitigating that, the crucial border crossings on land and at airports have shown it can be managed well.

“The border could be a very good petri dish or crucible in which we can develop best practices for how do we open up certain segments of economic activity, but do it based on data,” said Bersin.

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