- The coronavirus crisis is causing a confusing mess on the border between the United States and Canada.
- For commercial reasons, the United States and Canada must clarify what counts as essential cross-border travel so that businesses can move goods freely and help boost their economies.
- Maryscott Greenwood is CEO of the Canada-US Business Council and a partner of Crestview Strategies.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business Insider home page for more stories.
The new epidemic of coronavirus is constantly attacking our economy.
The companies are staggering. Millions of people are suddenly unemployed. Government relief money, trying to make its way through sclerotic bureaucracies, is frustrating and inaccessible. Global supply chains are tight; an increasing number of container ships are sailing empty.
As governments struggle to respond, a vital decision early on by the governments of the United States and Canada has been to keep their common border open to essential traffic, which, in simple terms, means blocking tourism and travel. amenity, but permitting trade – the movement of goods and services that take place hundreds of thousands of times from coast to coast, and which fuel and maintain our integrated economies.
It had to be done. The two governments understand that if for any reason the border were closed to essential goods and services, or if something were to slow or stop their flow, the crisis would worsen immediately and seriously.
If we think things are bad now, imagine critical medical supplies stuck at checkpoints, fuel running out at gas stations, products stuck in transit and rotten, and other public health and economic necessities taken in a political network, unable to move.
But a well-intentioned policy can fail in execution, if it is not for another reason that it is implemented by human beings and struck down by political concerns.
The best example of this right now is the issue of respirators made by 3M, based in Minnesota. These masks are now considered essential to public health and to the very survival of health care providers.
First, President Trump ordered the company to prioritize US orders, reducing exports to other countries if necessary. Many Americans have undoubtedly applauded this decision.
But that caused an immediate and angry reaction in Canada, where 3M also has manufacturing facilities and where some of the raw materials for masks – medical grade paste, for example – come from.
Prime Minister Trudeau backed down. He clearly reminded Washington of the interdependence of our economies, noting, for example, the thousands of nurses who live in Canadian border cities but continue to cross the border to work in American hospitals, caring for American patients at risk of their own health.
But 3M is just one example. The fact is that leaders are under pressure, and it is clear that this pressure is already threatening the decision to leave our border open to essential traffic.
Businesses need certainty. We need to codify what is allowed to cross the border and then ensure that it is.
Right now, there are only guidelines. The United States has stated in writing that border restrictions “should not interrupt legitimate trade between the two nations or disrupt critical supply chains that ensure food, fuel, medicine and other materials essentials reach people on both sides of the border. ”
The Canadian government has decided to express its decision in the other direction, preferring to define what is not essential. Tourism and occasional travel are blocked, but the border remains open, says Ottawa, to everything else.
But here’s the catch: decisions about what is “essential” to travel remain with individual border officials, who have remarkably broad discretion and who are sensitive to political pressure on their governments. It is inevitable that some will take a more restrictive approach than others, denying entry to some workers.
We know it could happen because we’ve seen it before. During the mad cow disease outbreak in the 1990s, the United States Department of Agriculture issued guidelines and specifically approved food shipments from Canada. However, customs officials returned some of these shipments to the border. The current health crisis is exponentially wider than what we saw at the time, and the stakes are much higher. We cannot afford to repeat such mistakes.
But there is a solution.
Most people are aware of the trusted traveler programs currently in place: Nexus, Global Entry and the like. These programs allow a large number of people to be screened and pre-approved to enter an accelerated crossing between Canada and the United States.
What if we were to create an essential traveling salesperson? We could set up an online application that a company could fill out to certify that an employee has a legitimate business reason for crossing the border. The application would then perform a real-time analysis of the open source information and apply a risk score to validate the legitimacy of the requester, and automate the process to make it fluid and easy for everyone involved.
Such a process would relieve border officials of the guesswork. This would give businesses the certainty they need to continue the critical cross-border flow of goods and services. Above all, this would respond to urgent public health concerns. To cross, a person should be both qualified and symptom-free.
This should start as quickly as possible and ensuring that large and small businesses have access to the system and are not faced with unreasonable obstacles.
We know it can be done. At least one company is already working on creating the necessary risk profiles and algorithms.
But we are working against a clock. As this crisis deepens, pressures to further tighten the border will increase.
An Essential Commerce Traveler program can be set up and deployed quickly. It can be piloted immediately and adjusted if necessary. This will help preserve our economies and our way of life.