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  • Gillian Brock

Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism and Closed Borders in the Covid-19 Era



For some years now there has been a flourishing debate between those who advocate for a more open-bordered world and those who want nations to have more powers to restrict border crossings. Sometimes these different sides are given names, such as “globalists” or “cosmopolitans,” on the one hand, and “statists” or “nationalists” on the other. Does the Covid-19 pandemic shed any light on which side is right?


Some people may infer from our current distinctly closed-borders world, that the nationalists were right all along. They may say that the pandemic proves the importance and legitimacy of exercising tight, discretionary control over borders.  They may also conclude that when pushed, our current predicament shows that we are all nationalists at heart, seeking to protect our tribe at any cost, and that this is in fact the only way to thrive, just as it currently seems necessary to survive the pandemic. 


Others may well draw the opposite conclusion; namely, the pandemic shows that we live in a highly interdependent world and that even when we have closed borders, failure to acknowledge our connections and common threats puts us at great risk. Even when borders are firmly shut, failure to appreciate the deep interconnections among us prolongs threats rather than extinguishing them. Consider for instance how failure to provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants within the USA places US citizens at risk of contracting the disease. And the overcrowded housing conditions of migrant laborers expose citizens of Singapore to the virus as migrants work among the wider population.


On a broad interpretation of each side’s core commitments, both statists and cosmopolitans have important insights to offer about how our political institutions should best be structured, and we get a glimpse of this by looking at how nations are — and should be — dealing with the pandemic. Let’s start with what statists get right, at least when governments are responsive in the right ways to relevant evidence affecting people’s basic human needs. Governments have embraced different strategies in handling the pandemic given their circumstances and the weight they place on various bodies of scientific evidence. The strategy that New Zealand, a small island nation far away from populous countries, decided to pursue has so far been highly effective in eradicating the virus. The basic plan was “to go hard and go early”, as the Prime Minister put it. At an early phase, travel across borders was highly restricted, quarantine measures were introduced for new arrivals, all non-essential workers were required to stay at home for 5 weeks, and gradually restrictions were lifted as new cases approached zero. Other states facing different circumstances and stages of the pandemic adopted alternative policies in aiming to protect their people. The democratically elected leaders of a state should have the ability to forge policies attuned to their populations’ needs, at least when those leaders are subject to sufficient oversight.


But if we are to be successful in combatting Covid-19, we must acknowledge our interdependence and how strong global co-operation, and the institutional channels that facilitate such cooperation, are necessary. To take some simple examples, we must appreciate that everyone needs access to adequate healthcare if we are all to stay safe. We should ensure resources (such as personal protective equipment) are distributed in ways that track need. Researchers and practitioners should share knowledge and co-ordinate their efforts to determine which treatments produce desirable results and to develop safe and effective vaccines. And we need the global governance structures that would better facilitate such basic co-operation.


Why should nationalists care about the wellbeing of anyone beyond their borders?  They should at least care insofar as this threatens their own core interests and their population’s wellbeing.  If the virus flourishes in large parts of the world it significantly affects a state’s own goals.  Consider how trade, supply chains, and access to essential goods have all been significantly affected by the pandemic and all countries will suffer greatly from the global recession this pandemic has triggered, including the richest and most industrially advanced nations. The world has successfully united to contain disease before, such as in the quest to eradicate polio and smallpox. We may all be fighting an invisible enemy, but it is an enemy that is common to all humans on the planet. And it is one that statists have good reason to care about: a world in which polio and smallpox were rife was one in which compatriots’ wellbeing suffered.


What I think we should infer about Covid-19 and our political arrangements is that we do need institutional change, but neither of the two traditional sides gets the direction of change quite right. For human beings to flourish in our contemporary world, we need to make space both for self-determining states and for improved global governance regimes. And we need better accountability mechanisms to ensure both operate well. States can use their emergency powers to close borders responsibly, as the case of New Zealand once again illustrates. Where a compelling evidence-based case is presented that there are significant threats to public health and that border closures constitute appropriate and proportionate responses to the threats, a government can be justified in closing its borders where there is adequate democratic oversight, strong accountability mechanisms, and such powers have strict time limits.


And what the cosmopolitans get right is that on so many issues, we are interdependent, our fates intertwined, and that sustained, cooperative action is necessary to address our shared problems effectively. We need the institutional structures that can help us address our common problems, coordinate efforts and share associated responsibilities in ways that are sensitive to many different features, such as our varying capacities to assist. And to help in making all of this happen we need to nurture not just an awareness that we sink or swim together, but a sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings who may be suffering in near and faraway places.

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©2020 by Hannah McHugh