When Disease Comes, Rulers Grab More Power

March 23, 2020

In countries around the world, the pandemic is giving leaders an excuse to entrench themselves. And the public is going along with it.

On March 13—Friday the 13th, as it happened—my husband was driving down a Polish highway when he turned on the news and learned that the country’s borders would shut down in 24 hours. He pulled over and called me. I bought a ticket from London to Warsaw minutes later. I don’t live there all of the time, but my husband is Polish, the only house I own is in rural Poland, and I wanted to be in it.

The next morning, Heathrow Airport was spookily empty except for the Warsaw flight, which was packed with people trying to get one of the last commercial trips back into their country. During check-in, agents were refusing to board passengers without a Polish passport (I have one) or residency documents. Then someone realized that the new rules went into effect only at midnight, and so I witnessed a conversation between one of the stewards and two non-Polish passengers: “You realize that you might not be able to fly out again. You realize that you may be in Warsaw for a very long time …”

That same day, we called our college-freshman son in the United States and told him to get to the airport. He had been planning to stay with friends and family after his university closed. Instead, we gave him 30 minutes’ notice to get on one of the last flights to London, connecting to one of the last flights to Berlin. By the time he landed in Europe on Sunday, Poland had shut its borders to all public transportation. He took a train from Berlin to Frankfurt an der Oder, a town at the Polish-German border. Then he got out and walked across, carrying his luggage, as if in a Cold War movie about a spy exchange. He saw roadblocks, soldiers with guns, men in hazmat suits taking temperatures. My husband picked him up on the other side.

Poland was not the first European country to shut its borders, nor was it the last. About a dozen European countries have now halted or dramatically slowed border crossings. In addition, the Schengen Area—the European Union’s free-movement zone—has now stopped admitting non-EU citizens.

The medical evidence for these dramatic border closures is muddy: Amy Pope, a former National Security Council staffer who worked on the Ebola crisis in 2014, told me that the Obama administration considered closing borders to travelers from West Africa at the time, but “scientists strongly advised against it, as it would likely make the outbreak worse.” Border closures, without careful planning, can slow down movement of equipment and expertise or create clusters of infectious people at airports and other checkpoints. Closures also give the illusion of resolute action without changing the reality on the ground. Back in January, President Donald Trump’s decision to stop flights from China gave him and his administration the false sense that they had stopped COVID-19. They had not.

In Poland’s case, the abrupt, seemingly unplanned decision caused massive chaos. Polish citizens are now stranded all over the place, and the government has been forced to arrange charter flights to get them home. Thousands of citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states—including truck drivers and tourists just trying to get home—were lined up in their cars at the Polish-German border for several days, using nearby fields as a toilet, because border guards were refusing non-Poles entry. The German Red Cross was handing out food, drinks, and blankets.

None of these harsh, dramatic measures stopped the virus in Poland. The epidemic had already begun to spread a few weeks earlier and is still spreading. But despite the chaos—perhaps even because of the chaos—the border clampdown is immensely popular. The state is doing something. And this may be a harbinger of what is to come.

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