Countries around the world on Saturday continued to close borders, impose strict entry and quarantine requirements and restrict large gatherings in efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, France 24 reports.
The successive border closures came as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that Europe had become the pandemic’s current “epicenter” after reporting more cases and deaths than the rest of world combined, excluding China.
Countries have shuttered museums, tourist attractions and sporting events to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission, with more than 138,000 people worldwide infected and more than 5,000 dead.
At his daily briefing on the coronavirus emergency on Friday, Luca Zaia, the governor of Italy’s Veneto region, one of Europe’s worst-hit, told reporters that Europe’s borderless zone was “disappearing as we speak”. “Schengen no longer exists, it will be remembered only in the history books,” Zaia said, pointing to the long lines of traffic stuck at Italy’s northeastern border, where Austrian officials have reintroduced stringent controls.
With Italy reporting the most virus cases and deaths anywhere in the world except China, the pandemic is increasingly wearing on the EU’s cherished core principle, which envisions a border-free Europe where citizens can freely live, work and travel.
Austria became the first country to impose drastic curbs on travel from Italy on Wednesday, urgently reinstalling border checkpoints in the exact spots where they had been dismantled back in 1997 when the country joined the Schengen Area. All travellers seeking to cross the Brennero border from Italy are now required to present health certificates proving they have not contracted the COVID-19 virus – a measure that has slowed traffic on the busy Alpine crossing to a near standstill.
Since then, Slovenia and Switzerland, which also border Italy, have imposed similar curbs. But several other EU nations – including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus – have announced restrictions that go far beyond travellers from Italy. “Most of the cases that have been propagating the coronavirus epidemic in Poland are imported cases,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters as he announced the closure of his country’s borders with all its neighbours starting at midnight on Saturday.
The Danish government also announced late Friday that it was closing all of its borders – land, sea and air – to travellers. Denmark consulted with neighbouring countries prior to the announcement but not with EU officials.
In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated divisions that first came to the fore in 2015, when eastern and central European states closed their borders to migrants and thwarted EU efforts to implement migrant quotas across the bloc.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country has also banned travel from Italy, has made an explicit link between the two crises.
“We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus – there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement,” Orban told Hungarian media on Friday.
“Our experience is that foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners,” he added, in remarks that mirrored US President Donald Trump’s description of the coronavirus as a “foreign disease”.
“We don’t want the coronavirus to head our way in droves.” Colombia said it will close its borders with Venezuela and stop visitors who have been in Europe or Asia, while a U.S. ban on entry for most people from continental Europe was due to start midnight Friday. The latter was extended to UK and Ireland.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led a World Health Organization team in China as the COVID-19 disease was surging last month, said countries might gain in the short term by limiting travel, but that overall “it doesn’t help to restrict movement”.
Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson and medical doctor currently involved in the virus response, echoed the concerns about the false comfort of closing borders as a delaying tactic.
“You divert a lot of resources when you are focused on closing borders, rather than focusing on protecting your health workers, preparing your health systems and enhancing your disease surveillance,” she told The Intercept.
Even Britain, which was initially exempt from Trump’s travel ban, has expressed scepticism about its effectiveness.
“With regard to flight bans, we are always guided by the science as we make our decisions here,” Finance Minister Rishi Sunak told BBC radio on Friday.
He added: “The advice we are getting is that there isn’t evidence that interventions like closing borders or travel bans are going to have a material effect on the spread of the infection.”
Via France 24