WWU’s Border Policy Research Institute examines effects of U.S.-Canada pandemic travel restrictions

The worldwide use of travel measures in response to COVID-19 was unprecedented in scale and duration. While restricting international borders may have initially slowed the spread of COVID-19 and its many variants, it also significantly disrupted individual lives, communities, and economies. 

“Cross-border families and couples were separated, and border communities reliant on cross-border activities and mobility were devastated,” said Laurie Trautman, Director of Western Washington University’s (WWU) Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI), “And we want to examine the lasting effects of such disruptions. Our access to the U.S.-Canada border provides an interesting case to study this, given the unique bilateral relationship shaped by significant cross-border travel and trade.”  

To date, there has been limited research on how travel measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have been experienced differently across different population groups, which is why Western’s BPRI has partnered with Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) public health program, based in Vancouver, BC.  

The following is a short conversation with BPRI’s Laurie Trautman on the project’s conception, mission, and way forward. 

What jumpstarted this project? 

Trautman: The project came about as the lead researchers — Dr. Kelley Lee from SFU and I — participated in several online forums and became aware of our shared interest in better understanding the impact of the COVID-19 border restrictions in the Canada-U.S. context. We saw that we had complementary expertise and sought funding to further advance the work already started by the Pandemics and Borders Project at SFU in 2020.  

We decided to center our research on how travel restrictions, quarantine, testing and vaccine requirements have impacted different individuals and communities, with a focus on equity-deserving groups in order to promote more equitable decision-making in the future. 

It’s a novel partnership because it not only brings together researchers from two disparate disciplines — public health and border policy — but also combines U.S. and Canadian perspectives to look holistically at the impacts of the pandemic border restrictions in both countries. 

What are you hoping to achieve? 

We will analyze data, conduct focus group workshops, and visit impacted communities all with the intent to develop tools that can support future policymaking, decision-making and implementation. And we hope that such tools can help inform eventual policymaking that minimizes inequities across social, economic and public health outcomes in multiple global contexts.  

Why is it crucial to this project to ensure to include so many new perspectives from your partners at SFU, through your new post-doc and through community outreach?  

Beyond public health decision making and outcomes, we know that travel measures are implemented for many different reasons and have wide ranging cross-sector effects. This research will identify lessons to be learned from the disparate socioeconomic impacts of travel measures at the U.S.-Canada border.  

This work demands a broad range of disciplinary approaches and knowledge. Our project combines BPRI’s deep knowledge and research legacy focused on the unique relationship of the U.S.-Canada border with the Pandemics and Borders project expertise on the global use of travel measures during the pandemic. 

By recognizing the impact of the border restrictions on people’s lived experiences, our mixed methods approach is grounded in the intersection between policy and people. This is important not only for constructing better policy, but also for legitimizing the disproportionate impacts faced by many communities during the pandemic. 

How will WWU and SFU split up the work?  

The team across SFU and WWU is interdisciplinary and brings a variety of lenses and expertise to the project. We are still in the early planning phase of the project but anticipate a very collaborative approach – both virtually and in-person. Researchers from both institutions will be involved in different activities, from media, policy and literature reviews to data collection at the community level, through for example, surveys and focus groups. 

Could you give us more info on how the project will be structured and any key milestones we can look forward to? 

This 2-year project began in February 2023 and will be completed in January 2025. In addition to monthly virtual meetings, we will be gathering in-person every 6-months and will provide regular updates as we progress. Currently, our teams are busy planning, hiring and developing research protocols. We anticipate being able to share exciting updates within the next few months, including welcoming a new post-doc to BPRI and WWU, and an undergraduate research assistant, who will both be dedicated to advancing this research. 

Could this project end up involving other areas of WWU or WWU experts outside of the BPRI? 

The nature of BPRI’s work is interdisciplinary and collaborative. If WWU experts are interested in engaging with the work we do, we always encourage them to reach out to us. Our Twitter is an excellent way to keep on top of any opportunities and updates. BPRI Director Dr. Laurie Trautman (Laurie.Trautman@wwu.edu) can be contacted with any questions or inquiries as well.  

If students (grad or undergrad) are interested in engaging with BPRI on this or future projects, what should they do? 

BPRI is planning on hiring student research assistants to help with the project. The students will assist with policy and media analysis, research support, qualitative data analysis, and contribute to the publication of our Border Policy Briefs. Students that are interested in this project or any other BPRI work can reach out to BPRI’s Research and Program Manager Jennifer Bettis: Jennifer.Bettis@wwu.edu.  

Updates, opportunities and contact information for the Pandemics and Borders project can be found on the project website, or follow them on twitter



Back row from left: Kelley Lee, Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU; Neda Zolfaghari, Project Coordinator, SFU;  Anne-Marie Nicol, Assoc. Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU; Julia Smith, Asst. Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU; Laurie Trautman, Director of the BPRI at WWU; Julianne Piper, Research Fellow & Project Manager, SFU; Haaris Tiwana, Research Fellow, Health and Social Inequities Theme at The Pacific Institute on Pathogens, Pandemics and Society (PIPPS), SFU.  

Front row from left: Jennifer Fang, Research Fellow, Pandemics & Borders Project, SFU; Alice Mũrage,  Research Fellow, Health and Social Inequities Theme at The Pacific Institute on Pathogens, Pandemics and Society (PIPPS), SFU; Salta Zhumatova, Postdoctoral Researcher, SFU; Jennifer Bettis, Research and Program Manager, BPRI at WWU.