The House

Chris Hall: Was Ottawa right to quarantine Canadians evacuated from Wuhan?

As the people Canada flew out of Wuhan, China, settle into their second day of a two-week quarantine at a Canadian military base, the debate over whether they pose a real risk of spreading the novel coronavirus here is heating up.
A person wears a protective mask as he opens the door before passengers step off a plane carrying Canadians back from Wuhan, China, at Canadian Forces Base Trenton on Friday. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode53:17

As the people Canada flew out of Wuhan, China, settle into their second day of a two-week quarantine at a Canadian military base, the debate over whether they pose a real risk of spreading the novel coronavirus here is heating up.

The nearly 200 evacuees are staying at CFB Trenton, where they are being monitored for signs of the virus, getting meals delivered to their rooms and being urged to limit their social interactions.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said they all faced an elevated risk of exposure to the virus in Wuhan and its surrounding area — the centre of the outbreak — and it's "in the best interest of the Canadian public to prevent any potential spread" by keeping them isolated at the base.

In China, the novel coronavirus spread quickly. More than 31,000 people have been infected and more than 600 have died — including a doctor who was one of the first to raise the alarm.

It's complicated

But some infectious disease specialists in Canada argue the quarantine isn't actually necessary. It's prompting a debate over the ethics of limiting personal liberties in the name of public health.

It's a complicated question, University of Toronto bioethecist Kerry Bowman said during a panel discussion airing today on CBC's The House.

As the people Canada flew out of Wuhan, China settle into their second day of a two-week quarantine at a Canadian military base, the debate over whether they pose a real risk of spreading the novel coronavirus here is heating up. 11:55

"You really have to show evidence that the potential harm to others is significant enough that it would justify people losing what is essentially their civil liberties," he said.

Dr. Alon Vaisman is an infection control specialist in Toronto. He said he's not convinced there's a medical case to be made for confining people who are showing no symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

"I think we should say very clearly that, from a medical point of view, there's isn't a clear indication" that these people need to be quarantined, he said. "If we had a patient coming into our hospital who was entirely asymptomatic with a travel history, our current protocols in Ontario, for example, wouldn't be to isolate those patients."

Quarantine 'might delay' spread of virus here

Vaisman is not alone in that view. Dr. Allison McGeer is an infectious disease expert who was on the front lines of Toronto's response to the SARS outbreak in 2003.

"You know, I think the hope with this quarantine is that the people who are coming back will not be a source of novel coronavirus and introduce it into Canada," she told The House.

 "That will not stop this outbreak from coming to Canada, but it might delay it."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters this week that the quarantine was imposed out of "an abundance of caution" and was based on the best information public health officials had.

In other words, it's better to be criticized now for limiting the movements of returning travellers than to be attacked later if they transmit the virus to others.

A question of trust

Vaisman said a quarantine in this context is as much about politics as it is about public health.

"It encourages some trust in the government and the public health agencies that they are taking measures in order to prevent transmission of this infection, similar to what other countries are doing with their returning travellers," he said.

But Bowman said the government likely had to consider other factors when deciding whether to quarantine so many people.

Some of the evacuees, for example, may not be able to go into two weeks of self-imposed isolation at home. 

So they're stuck counting down the days until they're declared disease-free and permitted to leave. Meanwhile, health experts continue to insist the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains low.

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