How Canada changed its position on pandemic travel bans

Countries are acting swiftly to isolate regions where COVID-19 variants of concern have emerged. Many scientists are not convinced that travel bans actually work. Some say bans encourage countries to downplay outbreaks or hide new variants. Others say bans can buy time.

While experts debate whether they work, Ottawa has gone from opposing travel bans to imposing them

Passengers check in at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa chose the perfect venue Tuesday to make the argument that a travel ban imposed on his country is both "unscientific" and "discriminatory."

He made the remarks — which he tweeted out to the world — on board a government jet about to depart for a tour of Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal.

"We have come out in total rejection of these bans that have been imposed on southern Africa, and we are insisting that they be lifted," said Ramaphosa.

"We have advanced as a world to a point where we now know that when people travel they should be tested, like I was tested last night, and I'm happy to be tested when I arrive again. We've got the tools, we've got the means to be able to deal with this."

But even African solidarity was strained by the news of the omicron variant, as Rwanda joined the list of countries that have temporarily banned travellers from southern Africa.

Canada was quick to join that list, prompting complaints from Canadians with South African ties. On Tuesday, it added Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt to the roster of countries it has placed under travel restrictions.

The U.S., U.K. and EU countries also placed eight African countries under a travel ban — even as some of their leaders congratulated South Africa for its "rapid genomic sequencing and leadership in transparently sharing scientific data".

WATCH | Transport minister joins CBC's Power & Politics to discuss the possibility of new restrictions by U.S. government

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Featured Video"Every country makes its own decisions...we'll wait for the U.S. to announce its own measures," said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra when asked if he knows if Canadians will be required to have a COVID-19 test on arrival to the U.S., per some media reports.

G7 health ministers also issued a joint statement that "praised the exemplary work of South Africa in both detecting the variant and alerting others to it." But all seven countries imposed measures that limit the ability of South Africans and others from the region to move around the world.

The measures will undermine the tourism industry in the region. While tourism makes up only 3 per cent of South Africa's GDP, it accounts for more than 10 per cent of national income for Egypt, Botswana and Namibia.

Going from opposing bans to imposing them

The Trudeau government — following the lead of the World Health Organization — publicly opposed travel bans at the beginning of the pandemic. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam herself denounced the idea of stopping travellers at the time.

"The WHO advises against any kind of travel and trade restrictions, saying that they are inappropriate and could actually cause more harm than good in terms of our global effort to contain," Tam cautioned on Feb. 3, 2020.

"Canadians think we can stop this at the border," Health Minister Patty Hajdu added on March 13, 2020. "But what we see is a global pandemic, which means that border measures are highly ineffective and, in some cases, can create harm."

People scan a QR code to register before getting a COVID-19 coronavirus test in Beijing on November 4, 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

But as public anger mounted over China's lack of transparency in the early stages of the pandemic, so did suspicions about the WHO's advice — a global health agency accused by some in the West of being too much under Beijing's influence.

China itself loudly opposed travel bans back when it was seen as the epicentre of the pandemic. Beijing has since imposed one of the strictest entry policies in the world — cancelling all visas issued prior to March 28, 2020 and refusing to issue new ones except in very limited cases.

Canada has also changed its attitude.

Experts remain unconvinced

The B.1.1.7 or Kent (U.K.) variant, which was first sequenced in September 2020 and took off in the U.K. population as that year came to an end, weakened the Trudeau government's resolve.

By late December 2020, ten countries in all five continents were reporting at least 20 cases of the variant that would later come to be known as alpha. On December 23, Canada ordered a halt to all flights from the U.K.

Canada has acted faster in response to the omicron variant, imposing a ban on seven southern African countries within days of the first news reports about the variant.

A woman sitting on a bus wears a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Liverpool, England on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (Peter Byrne/Associated Press)

While politicians have reversed course on travel bans, many experts remain unconvinced of their usefulness — for two main reasons.

The first is a belief that travel bans move too slowly to stop variants. Omicron has been detected already in travel-related cases from Canada to Hong Kong and there is growing evidence of community transmission in EnglandScotland and Portugal.

But stopping the international spread of a new variant is not an all-or-nothing effort. Even though the variant has escaped southern Africa, stopping flights from the region could still reduce the number of new lines of transmission being seeded abroad. That could buy local health authorities more time to test, trace and contain.

'Punishing' countries for virus vigilance

The second argument against travel bans is the most compelling, said epidemiologist Dr Prabhat Jha of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"We need to stop running from one crisis to another," he told CBC News.

"You don't want to be in the position of punishing South Africa for sharing evidence. We want countries to do more sequencing and share that information freely, without fear that if they report it, they're going to get a travel ban."

Omicron is the second variant of concern to be detected by South African health authorities. That doesn't mean either variant emerged in South Africa. It could just be the result of South Africa having the best disease surveillance and reporting system in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pupils wearing masks play study at the Kgololo Academy in Johannesburg's Alexandra township Tuesday Nov. 30, 2021. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

But praise is of little use to South Africans who now must bear the economic cost of being declared persona non grata among nations.

WHO's Africa director Matshidiso Moeti issued a statement supporting South Africa. "With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world," she said, "putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity."

Some countries agreed. Colombia's health minister tweeted that his country would fight the omicron variant with vaccination, testing and tracing, and called for "no discrimination against nations that invest in vigilance and reporting."

Bans can work — for a while

Adam St. John is co-founder of Sitata Inc., a global health surveillance company that first notified its subscribers of the emergence of a new respiratory virus on January 2, 2020, when COVID-19 was still just a mysterious local outbreak in one part of China.

St. John was in Hong Kong when the pandemic began; he spent part of it in Germany and is now in the U.K.

"There's definitely differences in how countries react," he said. "In Hong Kong, when there were only about ten cases, they were already taking my temperature and disinfecting elevator buttons and generally taking things very seriously. A big part of that was their previous experience with SARS.

"I think Australia and New Zealand certainly took a page from their book. They've been very restrictive throughout the whole period, and to be honest, a lot of that behaviour works."

Passengers arrive early morning at Sydney Airport, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (Mark Baker/Associated Press)

St. John said no nation can really freeze out the outside world.

"Modern economies can't cope with that," he said. "That's why you see this tightening and loosening of restrictions. There's a balance. Certainly we don't want to punish other nations for reporting, because that could make the situation a whole lot worse." 

A study in the journal Science that looked at bans in the earliest stages of the pandemic found that "the travel quarantine introduced in Wuhan on 23 January 2020 only delayed epidemic progression by 3 to 5 days within China, but international travel restrictions did help to slow spread elsewhere in the world until mid-February."

The study concluded that a travel ban can help a country when it's combined with strong internal measures, but not when it's seen as a substitute for domestic responses.

Buying time

The arrival of the omicron variant has given new urgency for calls for more equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide. 

"There's only one way out of this pandemic, and that's worldwide vaccination," said Dr. Jha.

"Politicians try to grab the easiest solutions, even the ones that may not be so effective, and sometimes at the expense of ignoring what would work. And what would work is a global strategy to make sure we have very few unvaccinated people.

"They're the ones, be they in Florida or be they in South Africa, that are the variant factories. This is where the variants are occurring."

St. John said that travel bans have failed if they're judged by their effectiveness in keeping variants out permanently. But bans can slow the entry of new variants into a country, he said, which can give local health authorities more time to understand the threat and prepare for it.

"They are buying time," he said. "They don't know what's in store with a new strain. The reactions by these nations are somewhat warranted as they figure out the response."

Restrictions around the world

Canada has imposed a ban on the entry of foreign travellers who have been in one of ten African countries in the past 14 days. The countries are: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Egypt, Nigeria and Malawi.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving here from these countries will be required to obtain a negative PCR test and undergo a 14-day quarantine, including an arrival test and a Day 8 test. The measures are to stay in place until January 31, 2022. 

U.S. President Joe Biden recently issued a presidential proclamation that imposes a ban similar to Canada's. It took effect Tuesday morning and runs for 30 days.

The United Kingdom's flight ban affects the same countries targeted by Canada's ban, plus Angola and Zambia but not including Egypt.

A woman adjusts her face mask as she passes a shop front window decorated for Christmas in Athens, Greece, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press)

The European Union said that it will not restrict the free movement of EU citizens between member states and did move to stop flights between Europe and southern Africa. Some EU countries, such as Poland, introduced their own restrictions. Others, including Germany, hinted they might do so shortly.

After keeping the country open to foreign travellers during the Olympics and being blamed for a subsequent spike in COVID cases, Japanese authorities wasted no time in responding to omicron with a complete ban on the entry of foreigners, including foreign students.

Israel also opted for extreme measures after two cases of omicron were confirmed there. As of Sunday, Israel has a ban on the entry of foreigners. The move comes just one month after Israel re-opened its borders.

Several Caribbean nations, including Jamaica and Trinidad, banned travel from the eight African nations identified in President Biden's decree.

A passenger looks out through a window at the Barcelona airport in Spain on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (Joan Mateu Parra/Associated Press)

The Philippines was planning to open itself again to tourism on December 1, allowing vaccinated foreigners to enter the country without undergoing quarantine. That re-opening has now been postponed.

Spain's approach differs from that of some European countries: it permits travellers from southern Africa to enter the country but subjects them to a 10-day quarantine. Spain also implemented a month-long ban on the entry of all unvaccinated travellers from the U.K., beginning December 1. Previously, Spain had permitted unvaccinated British visitors to show proof of a negative PCR test.

Australia banned the entry of foreigners who've recently been in any of eight African countries. It also delayed a partial re-opening, scheduled for December 1, that would have permitted the entry of qualified and vaccinated foreign workers and students without the need for special travel exemptions. That has now been postponed to December 15.

Several other countries have barred the entry of people who have been in southern Africa recently. They include Brazil, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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