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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.


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

Publication Title

International Organization

Publication Citation

74 International Organization, supplemental issue E.1 (Summer 2020).