Harder borders are a legacy of Covid we should reject

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M oira Hunt hasn’t seen her mother in over 18 months. Hunt and her husband, Shane, live in the UK but are from Australia, where Moira’s mother is about to be admitted to hospital. In her 70s, she has had to cope with the pandemic and her own illness without her daughter by her side. Shane has also, despite a family crisis, been unable to go back to Sydney to see his father and relatives.

Moira and Shane can go home, but would need to shell out £10,000 each for plane tickets, and then another A$3,000 (£1,600) for hotel quarantine, even though they are fully vaccinated. As of last Friday, they also have to prove that they have a “compelling reason” to travel. Shane can just about stomach the separation, but the unfairness of the financial element has made it a bitter pill to swallow. “If you have disposable income and disposable time, if you aren’t a normal everyday member of the public, you’re fine. When you realise it all comes down to money, it becomes harder to accept. It makes the emotional toll even harder to bear.”

You will hear a different version of this story in most countries across the world. Border closures, strict and expensive quarantine rules, and costly airline tickets have effectively trapped millions since the beginning of the pandemic. The conditions these people are in, and any support they have access to, depends entirely on where they were when the music stopped. Some were trapped visiting their families, so they were saved from being separated, but then had to navigate the stress of losing jobs or academic places due to their absence. Migrant workers in the Gulf laid off during the pandemic are stuck indefinitely without income or rights to benefits. Families with roots and branches between western countries and their red-listed nations across Africa, South America and Asia are split by lack of flights and lack of resources.

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The result is a global loss of life milestones – weddings, births, graduations. Also lost are the little things that accumulate into heavy burdens – the first steps of a first grandchild, the bloom of a new relationship frozen by distance at the start of the pandemic. Not knowing the scale of what was in store has made it all harder to cope with. When sharing stories of my own separations with others in a similar situation, the one thing we all had in common was the fact that it crept up on us.

When the first restrictions started in March 2020, we assumed it was going to be a short, sharp bout of pain, before things reverted to normal. Many even booked travel tickets, then rebooked and rebooked, before giving up. “We spent most of 2020 second-guessing,” Shane told me, but now “we’ve had to give up that sense of: well, maybe Christmas, maybe in the new year, maybe we’ll make the next round of birthdays”. If anything, it has been 2021 that has heralded the most severe and complex travel and quarantine restrictions.

Trying to figure out how to meet quarantine and travel requirements and save money feels like playing snakes and ladders – one right move will advance you another few steps, and one wrong move sends you hurtling back to square one. Every stage reveals another layer of complexity, another tier in a privilege hierarchy that this pandemic has sharpened. At the top of the pyramid sit the holders of “high-value passports” who don’t need visas to travel to most places and who live in countries with high vaccination rates. At the bottom are those who live in countries with no access to vaccines in the foreseeable future. Political conflict also plays its part: when Egypt was placed on Britain’s red list earlier this year, UK-based Palestinians visiting Gaza were trapped, as Egypt is the only port of entry and exit.

Relatives embrace at Heathrow’s terminal 5 last week. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

These are tolls to be added to the others we have all paid in the past 18 months. Like the other policies we have become accustomed to, from wearing masks to social distancing, there are justifications for travel restrictions. Most of them stem from scientific modelling and an abundance of caution – a reasonable mixture to follow in a pandemic. If we are to minimise the spread of the virus it makes sense to limit movement, within countries and between them. But it’s becoming clear that, in many cases, such policies are not being revised in line with the progress made in reducing infection and rolling out vaccinations. Something murkier is afoot. It’s hard to shake the impression that there is a desire not to return to normal rates of ebb and flow, but to use this opportunity to make it permanently harder to move around, particularly if your starting point is in the global south.

The bluntness of this enforcement reaches even those who have been vaccinated, some of whom still cannot easily return home to countries with strict travel measures. They are collateral damage in a display of quarantine theatre. Rigid border rules reassure domestic audiences that the problem is external, which provides a false sense of security when virus management at home is poor. At various points over the past year, the US and the UK banned entry from countries with far lower infection rates than their own.

Border regimes in general, and western ones in particular, are built to be inflexible. They run on the principle, “if in doubt, keep out”. In a pandemic, these large, lumbering bureaucracies are incapable of the modulation and nuance required to create fair, sensible mechanisms. The outcome is a crude and cruel system that has relegated the human toll of separation to the bottom of government priority lists.

And despite the universal pain of these policies, there is little political pressure on governments to revise them. Toughening up borders is a popular measure at the best of times, let alone when we are told virus variants are at the gates. While people might demand easier access to their favourite holiday destinations, there’s no political capital to be gained in loosening restrictions for less glamorous places, ones associated in the popular imagination with poverty and migration inflows.

With this inbuilt inertia, another threat looms – separation without end. “Living with the virus”, in the familiar phrase, might mean a world in which reuniting with friends and family is a perk, rather than a right. This is not a return to “normal”. It is the hoarding of it.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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