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Opinion: “Pandemicization”: The New “Securitization” in Cross-Border and Travel Governance?

Since January 2020, countries around the world like the United States have sought to limit the movement of people to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than leading to permanent border closures and travel restrictions, countries will likely begin to expand and enhance traveler screenings and travel restrictions as a part of their routine cross-border governance in the future, a process which we call “pandemicization.” We believe that countries should look at the appropriate role of cross-border policies in responding to future pandemics and public health emergencies and pivot to a more proactive version of pandemicization to improve responses to future health threats.

Pandemicization will occur in response to weaknesses in the United States’ and other countries’ efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Although cross-border policies already form part of U.S. pandemic response plans1, the Trump administration has struggled to manage the current pandemic partially because it did not implement a comprehensive cross-border mitigation strategy at the start of the crisis.2 These issues have been a longstanding problem in the United States. A 2016 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report found that the agency’s response to the 2014-16 Ebola crisis in West Africa did not have proper planning and coordination across its components, including with traveler referrals for screenings. A 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report also noted that no federal agency – including DHS and the Department of Transportation – had taken the lead in creating a national aviation preparedness plan to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases from international travelers. As a result the United States may seek to permanently integrate these types of responsive measures into their existing cross-border policies to screen for diseases and rapidly deploy mitigation measures during the initial stages of future public health emergencies, especially if they involve other novel types of diseases.

It is unknown whether these changes will be reactive or proactive, however. In the case of reactive cross-border policies, these measures might resemble the current regime of restricting travel from affected countries and conducting mass quarantines of travelers from countries with wide breakouts of diseases. In contrast, a proactive approach would identify potential public health issues in other countries, develop a tailored cross-border strategy, and monitor its outcomes to improve its performance over time. This could include establishing closer coordination with other countries to respond to outbreaks, especially with accessing exit data of travelers from affected regions to track the spread of disease. While the latter approach is a dramatic improvement over the current response, the United States’ history of adopting reactive immigration policies to blunt migration crises increases the chances the country may follow a similar trajectory with pandemicization.

Regardless of the direction, pandemicization could have parallels to “securitization,” the process where the United States and other countries addressed weaknesses in their immigration system’s ability to tackle terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the United States, the 9/11 Commission report noted that the State Department and the Immigration Naturalization Service were not effectively integrated into the nation’s national security apparatus, especially with sharing information about non-citizens on terrorist watchlists, and maintained weak screening processes for immigration benefits. In response, Congress took major legislative steps between 2002 and 2007 to resolve these problems, including:

  • Combining components from 22 agencies to create the Department of Homeland Security as the single entity to oversee the immigration system and responses to foreign national security threats.
  • Overhauling the screening and vetting processes for non-citizens traveling to the United States and their immigration benefits applications.
  • Improving data-sharing about non-citizens between federal law enforcement and national security agencies and the immigration agencies.

In short, the securitization of the U.S. immigration and cross-border system marked a complete overhaul of the manner that the country used its immigration system to mitigate national security threats. It stands that pandemicization may have a similar impact on migration and cross-border governance in the future.

We believe that the United States can take several steps to move towards a proactive pandemicization model. As it stands, travel restrictions in the initial stages of an outbreak can offer countries like the United States the space and time to prepare a response to impending public health emergencies. Once the pandemic arrives, further travel restrictions will reduce additional cases but will generate diminishing returns because community transmission has already occurred within the country. Once a wave has been suppressed, cross-border travel surveillance systems should ensure that new cases do not arrive to seed new outbreaks.

In order to improve on this model, the U.S. government should integrate health intelligence about pandemics and public health emergencies in other countries into U.S. immigration and border threat assessments. The government should use this data to make assessments about which cross-border policies would prevent or mitigate these threats at the earliest points possible. This process involves three steps:

  • The United States should work with other governments and multilateral organizations to develop an international epidemic intelligence sharing regime for government homeland security and border agencies like DHS to make informed decisions about their cross-border policies.
    • The regime would mirror existing frameworks for sharing national security information between states such as the Five Eyes where countries have established processes for sharing specific types of data between national security agencies in the initiative’s partner governments.
    • This approach could incorporate data gathering and sharing protocols from current multilateral regimes that exchange health intelligence among governments and international organizations.3
  • The U.S. government and the airline industry should develop protocols to regularly gather actionable traveler data before a potential public health emergency and share this information with DHS and HHS.
    • This process would parallel the steps that airlines follow to gather traveler information that DHS can share with U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether an individual poses a national security risk.
    • In this case, the data would collect personal contact information to be able to track a traveler’s locations and contacts in countries facing major public health emergencies before and after arriving to the United States.
  • The United States should create a menu of policy and operational responses that minimize disruptions in cross-border economic activity based on the analysis of data gathered from the international regime and the airline industry.
    • These responses include targeted travel restrictions, exit and entry healthcare screening, and increased vetting of travelers arriving from affected areas.
    • The United States should maintain permanent early warning mechanisms for suspected pandemics and public health emergencies.

Although these proposals do not represent the full scope of steps that the United States and other countries could take to implement a proactive pandemicization regime, they mark the three core components to establish a permanent policy that uses data to make the best possible cross-border policy decisions possible before and during the initial stages of a pandemic.

This process should tackle two major implementation challenges. First, the United States and its allies should take every step possible to balance meeting these public health challenges with privacy concerns about data collection. Although the securitization of migration and cross-border governance expanded the capacity of governments to track and neutralize national security threats, apprehensions about the gathering of traveler and immigration data from sectors ranging from airline companies to privacy advocates have accompanied these developments. Given that these concerns about gathering traveler data are already emerging among airline firms and privacy advocates4, the U.S. government should gather this data in transparent ways, enable citizens and firms to relay their concerns to DHS, and produce annual reports on these operations. Failure to do so will undermine the effective implementation of a proactive pandemicization regime.

The United States should also ensure that this process does not lead to the targeting of migrant communities. Although securitization improved the U.S. immigration system’s security apparatus, this trend also led to the reframing of immigration as a threat vector, especially immigration from Muslim-majority countries. This development subsequently contributed5 to the broad targeting of immigrants from these countries as well as Muslim American citizens. At a time when concerns about immigration and right-wing nationalist movements are on the rise around the world, pandemicization could do the same for migrants from regions facing public health crises.6 As a result, lawmakers and government officials needs to learn from the mistakes of securitization and work with civil society groups representing migrant communities from these regions and limit scapegoating that can lead to ostracization or bigotry when communicating information about a pandemic.

These measures alone will not stop a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. Any public health emergency requires governments to utilize their resources to treat individuals in their countries as well as working with other states to develop an international response to mitigate the virus’ spread. However, these measures may buy the U.S. government time to develop a whole-of-government response that helps the country prepare for the arrival and spread of a disease or other public health emergencies. As the current pandemic shows, countries like the United States cannot squander these opportunities, especially if they are dealing with a rapidly spreading disease like COVID-19. But the development of a comprehensive and forward-thinking response can ensure that pandemicization is a positive development for the United States’ cross-border and travel system.

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End Notes

1 for See instance: Homeland Security Council, National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, 2006. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/pdf/pandemic-influenza-strategy-2005.pdf. An overview of the current process for detecting and mitigating the spread of communicable diseases in international flights also appears in the following U.S. Government Accountability Office report: U.S. Government Accountability Office, Air Travel and Communicable Diseases: Comprehensive Federal Plan Needed for U.S. Aviation System’s Prepardness, 2015. Available at https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/674224.pdf.
2 Various media outlets reported that the administration did not adopt a 2016 National Security Council playbook for fighting pandemics that recommended that the government needed a comprehensive strategy at the start of a pandemic. The playbook outlined various questions that policymakers needed to ask when responding to a pandemic, including developing screenings at ports of entry and airports at the start of these crises.
3 A model is the EpiSouth program, an EU-funded initiative that established an early detection system for communicable diseases among 27 countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea. The data sharing mechanisms include creating a weekly Epidemiological Bulletin (eWEB) providing public verified information on international health threats and a secured electronic platform allowing confidential national alerts exchange. Another example is the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, which is run by the Canadian government. The program gathers and reviews data from secondary sources about potential public health emergencies and issues alerts for members of the initiative.
4 See for instance [1] Eli Lake, “When tracking the virus means tracking your citizens,” Bloomberg, March 30, 2020. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-30/covid-19-tracking-threatens-civil-liberties-after-coronavirus.
[2] Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Airlines refused to college passenger data that could aid coronavirus fight,” The New York Times, March 31, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/business/coronavirus-airlines-contact-tracing-cdc.html.

5 See for instance: [1] Jonathan Fox and Yasemin Akbaba, “Securitization of Islam and religious discrimination: Religious minorities in Western democracies, 1990–2008.” Comparative European Politics, 13(10), 2015. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271603616_Securitization_of_Islam_and_religious_discrimination_Religious_minorities_in_Western_democracies_1990-2008.
[2] Hidayet Siddikoglu, “Securitisation of Islam in the West: Analysing Western Political and Security Relations with the Islamic States,” Hiroshima Journal of Peace, 2017. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318447581_Securitisation_of_Islam_in_the_West_Analysing_Western_Political_and_Security_Relations_with_the_Islamic_States.

6 Recent reports about the targeting of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans during the current pandemic suggests that this process may have already started in the United States and other countries. See [1] Kristine Philipps, “What it’s like to be Asian during the coronavirus pandemic,” USA Today, March 28, 2020. Availale at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/28/coronavirus-racism-asian-americans-report-fear-harassment-violence/2903745001/.
[2] Suyin Haynes, “As coronavirus spreads, so does xenophobia and anti-Asian racism,” TIME, March 6, 2020. Available at: https://time.com/5797836/coronavirus-racism-stereotypes-attacks/.

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