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A border crossing sits empty in Lacolle, Que., on March 19, 2020.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Rosemary McCarney is the past ambassador of Canada to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament and the Pearson Sabia Visiting Scholar in International Relations at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Discussions about borders have been in the news lately. That’s the thing about borders: we seldom think of them until something goes wrong, and then we tend to think of little else. COVID-19 is reminding us of the limits of traditional borders when the intruder is an invisible and deadly virus.

While there are many kinds of borders, political borders are the most familiar and visible to us, generally requiring a passport or a visa to “cross over.” I have crossed a lot of borders in my life – some thick with bureaucracy, militias and child soldiers, and others thin, just rivers crossed with jeans hiked up and shoes off.

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There was a time not too long ago when passports were not necessary on the Canada-U.S. border for Canadians or Americans, who criss-cross the boundary millions of times a day. For some, their town and even their house straddle this line. But last week, the “longest undefended border” was closed.

A couple of misnomers here. First, it has been a long time since it was undefended: Traffic line-ups awaiting immigration and customs clearance on holiday weekends are proof of that. Even moose crossing in rural areas in Western Canada are known to set off motion sensors, alerting U.S. border patrols to jump into vehicles to intercept intruders coming in from Canada.

The dramatic-sounding closure of the “undefended” part of the world’s longest border is really more of the start of “enhanced management.” Both sides are accommodating the personal and commercial interdependence of the bilateral relationship while trying to stop an invisible viral threat from crossing over. Then this week, the White House mused about putting soldiers near the border, likely for the first time since the War of 1812, and the Prime Minister shifted his language to the importance of maintaining the world’s longest “unmilitarized” boundary.

Other once-unimaginable borders are also asserting themselves this week. Travel between provinces and territories is being restricted and monitored. In France, people are being kept from moving from city homes to their cottages and chalets, as authorities fear they will spread the virus and overwhelm less well-equipped rural hospitals.

In ancient times, it was garlic, horseshoes, wind-chimes, images of skeletons and skulls and other talismans hung above doors that carried a clear message for intruders both visible and invisible to keep your distance. Today, we still have boundaries – fences, walls, gates and hedges. Some of them are quite formidable in wealthy neighbourhoods, but they all deliver a common message: Keep out, unless we choose to let you in. Unfortunately, viruses don’t read.

Today, we have created new language for boundary-establishing practices to keep an invisible threat away: physical distancing (as the World Health Organization has rebranded “social distancing”). Two metres or six feet is now the accepted social and medical border among friends and foes to prevent the COVID-19 intruder from crossing into our protected space.

Threats from disease-carriers, cyberattackers and even clever disinformation campaigns are all invisible threats to our personal and collective health security. These “invisibles” respect no borders, and they challenge our best defenses and sometimes our best instincts.

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And they also challenge our years-long dreams of a borderless world. For decades, borders have thinned across post-war Europe and North America, and more recently in Latin America and Africa. That borders are now getting thick again in the face of the pandemic is, itself, a threat.

After all, thin borders are enabling a rapid, large-scale global response to resolve COVID-19. Thin borders have connected scientists and researchers who have built relationships of trust and collegiality over years of meeting; they are now sharing data, discoveries and theories in real time that will help us overcome this latest invisible global threat more quickly and efficiently. Cuban doctors are landing in Italy to relieve exhausted Italian health-care workers. China is shipping products to resource-poor clinics in Africa so health-care workers and their patients are protected. Canada is sending development assistance and humanitarian actors so other countries with acute medical needs can protect themselves from this borderless virus.

Borders will always need to be thickened and to be managed more carefully at times. But the trend line of the past century to thinning borders – ones based on trust and reciprocity – remains the best way forward for finding the solutions for our co-dependent planet.

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