Pandemic Response as Border Politics

31 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2020

See all articles by Michael Kenwick

Michael Kenwick

Rutgers University - New Brunswick

Beth A. Simmons

University of Pennsylvania

Date Written: July 16, 2020


Pandemics are imbued with the politics of bordering. For centuries, border closures and restrictions on foreign travelers have been the most persistent and pervasive means by which states have responded to global health crises. The ubiquity of these policies is not driven by any clear scientific consensus about their utility in the face of myriad pandemic threats. Instead, we show they are influenced by public opinion and preexisting commitments to invest in the symbols and structures of state efforts to control their borders, a concept we call border orientation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, border orientation was already generally on the rise world-wide. This trend has made it convenient for governments to “contain” the virus by externalizing it, rather than taking costly but ultimately more effective domestic mitigation measures. We argue that the pervasive use of external border controls in the face of the coronavirus reflects growing anxieties about border control and border security in the modern international system. To a great extent, fears relating to border security have become a resource in domestic politics – a finding that does not bode well for designing and implementing effective public health policy.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, global health crisis, politics, external border restrictions, historical quarantines, travel bans, border orientation, WHO, uncertainty, anxiety, filtering infrastructure, empirical investigation of control measures, border control

Suggested Citation

Kenwick, Michael and Simmons, Beth A., Pandemic Response as Border Politics (July 16, 2020). International Organization, Vol. 74, No. Supplemental Issue E.1, 2020, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-31, Available at SSRN:

Michael Kenwick

Rutgers University - New Brunswick ( email )

New Brunswick, NJ
United States

Beth A. Simmons (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
7817990076 (Phone)

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