Canada

Once again, Canadian border restrictions come only after the damage has been done

Open borders helped seed Canada with a devastating first wave, and this late ruling allowed in yet another variant

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In the face of an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases in South Asia, on Thursday Canada finally imposed a month-long ban on direct passenger flights from India and Pakistan. The announcement came only hours after a letter from the premiers of Ontario and Quebec pleaded with Ottawa “to protect the lives and well-being of our citizens” by stepping up Canadian border controls.

“Effective 11:30 p.m. Eastern time tonight, I am suspending all commercial and private passenger flights arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan for 30 days,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra Thursday.

The closure comes too late to prevent the arrival of a new “double mutant” variant on Canadian soil. Known as B.1617, the variant has already been identified in 39 cases of COVID-19 in B.C., and on Wednesday Quebec officially confirmed its first case.

A mass cremation of victims who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen at a crematorium ground in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Nevertheless, the 11th hour measure is tragically in keeping with a longstanding Canadian policy of keeping borders open until long after any opportunity to decisively stave off disaster has passed.

Canada kept its borders wide open to foreign travellers in early 2020, allowing its communities to be seeded with COVID-19 strains from Europe and Asia. More recently, Ottawa’s program of hotel quarantines wholly failed at keeping out South African and Brazilian variants now ravaging B.C. and Central Canada.

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And now, federal restrictions on arrivals from India and Pakistan come only after weeks of fully-loaded airplanes discharging passengers who would later test positive for COVID-19. New Zealand, by contrast, had an Indian travel ban in place by April 9, with similar bans soon enacted by the U.K., Singapore and Hong Kong, among others.

On Wednesday, Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam said the country has long resisted outright travel bans, instead opting for “layers of protection” against travellers from all countries.

Throughout the pandemic, the stance of federal officials has been that travel lockdowns are largely pointless as a virus will penetrate even the most firmly sealed border. On March 13, 2020 — less than two weeks before Canada first entered its ongoing odyssey of pandemic lockdowns — Health Minister Patty Hajdu dismissed the notion that “we can stop this at the border.” “Borders don’t stop travellers, and travellers find other ways into countries, and travellers become less honest about where they’ve come from,” she said.

Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu speaks to media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this file photo.
Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu speaks to media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this file photo. Photo by Reuters/Blair Gable

This week, deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo mirrored Hajdu’s now-13-month-old sentiment in saying that, whatever Canada does at its airports, new variants will get in regardless. “We know that, with viruses, it’s practically impossible to prevent new variants from arriving here in Canada,” he said in an April 21 COVID-19 update.

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The argument also has a neat corollary: When COVID strains or variants inevitably get into Canada, even middling border restrictions can be dropped with the reasoning that the damage has already been done.

This was the reason given last week when the federal government quietly dropped country-specific screening measures against Brazil — measures that been introduced far too late to prevent the arrival of the Brazilian variant into Western Canada. “The variants are here and really it was a matter of time before they started to take over,” B.C. medical officer of health Bonnie Henry said last week.

Canada is maintaining a laissez-faire attitude to its border in spite of the fact that the last 14 months have yielded dozens of examples of countries and regions who successfully used border controls to spare themselves the worst horrors of COVID-19.

Taiwan famously imposed travel restrictions on the Hubei province of China within hours of the first reports of a novel respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan. The island nation continues to maintain strict entry provisions on non-residents, with particularly harsh measures on travellers from hard-hit countries such as South Africa or the U.K. As a result, Taiwan has thus far lost only 11 citizens to the pandemic.

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New Zealand and Australia have just opened a quarantine-free travel bubble under which both nations are now living under conditions virtually untouched by COVID-19, with maskless sporting events and outdoor festivals having been a reality for months.

Families reunite after the first flight from Sydney lands in Wellington on April 19, 2021, as Australia and New Zealand opened a trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel bubble.
Families reunite after the first flight from Sydney lands in Wellington on April 19, 2021, as Australia and New Zealand opened a trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel bubble. Photo by Marty Melville/AFP

Both fought COVID-19 primarily with border controls. The measures may be a bit strict for Canadian appetites (New Zealand requires mandatory two-week hotel quarantine for every single foreign traveller), but with fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths between both countries, it’s clear that border controls have had some success at keeping out the virus.

Even within Canada, travel restrictions are behind some of the country’s most dramatic success stories, such as the Atlantic Bubble, the northern territories, and miniature quarantines imposed by remote First Nations. These regional quarantines did fail to comprehensively keep out every single case of COVID-19 — even Nunavut suffered four deaths related to COVID-19 — but it’s clear that placing some restrictions on the virus’s entry points works.

At the outset of COVID-19, the generalized opinion from the world’s public health authorities, including the World Health Organization, was that border closures would only make the pandemic worse. Yet last month, a meta-review published in the British Medical Journal found that travel restrictions imposed both within China and on foreign Chinese travel may have slowed the spread of COVID-19 by up to 80 per cent in the first days of the pandemic. “Early implementation was identified as a determinant of effectiveness,” wrote the study’s authors.

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People take photos in Taipei, Taiwan in December 2020.
People take photos in Taipei, Taiwan in December 2020. Photo by Reuters/Ann Wang

Beyond the question of whether or not Canada should admit travellers, however, is the fact that the country’s other “layers of protection” at the border have been woefully porous. Even in the worst days of the first wave, Canadian airports didn’t feature so much as a temperature check for arriving air travellers.

Canada’s current policy of hotel quarantine for arriving air travellers has proved stunningly toothless given the scores of travellers who are simply skipping quarantine. About 300 people have been fined $3,000 for refusing to quarantine in an approved hotel upon arrival.

This is on top of the nearly one quarter of air passengers who are exempt, as well as the glaring loophole that mandatory quarantine does not apply to those arriving at a land crossing.

Canadian border crossings are also notably absent of any rapid testing, a measure that has been employed on European borders since January.

Regardless, speaking to Global News on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified his government’s then-refusal to restrict flights from India by saying Canada already had the “strongest measures in the world in terms of protecting our borders.”

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