On April 14, three flights from Delhi arrived in Canada carrying passengers infected with COVID-19. Though the number of infected passengers on each was not disclosed, Canadian authorities labelled multiple rows throughout the planes as “affected,” which would suggest that more than one passenger was carrying the virus. On April 15, two more flights from Delhi with infected passengers landed in Canada. On April 16, two more, and two more again on April 17. In fact, nearly every day this month, multiple planes have arrived in Canada from India – where the B.1.617 variant may be driving an astronomical spike in cases – carrying passengers who would test positive for COVID-19.
We don’t know what happened to those passengers after they arrived in Canada. Perhaps they went into their three-day hotel quarantines as required, where there is little by way of protocol to prevent COVID-19 from spreading from one guest to the next. (Australian quarantine hotels go as far as to stagger meal deliveries so that guests don’t open their doors at the same time. Canadian quarantine hotels, by contrast, allow guests to go outside for smoke breaks.)
We don’t know whether the PCR test upon arrival at the airport detected the virus in these passengers or whether they developed symptoms and tested positive after their three-day stay. (Dozens of people who flew on a single Vistara flight from Delhi to Hong Kong in early April developed symptoms well into Hong Kong’s strict three-week hotel quarantine. Had they flown into Canada instead, they would’ve been at home and potentially exposing others before testing positive.)
And we don’t know whether any of those passengers opted simply to bypass hotel quarantine requirements altogether and take a ticket instead, as more than 200 travellers did in March, according to data obtained by the CBC. Those travellers are still supposed to quarantine at home for 14 days, but we can’t know the extent to which they actually followed quarantine protocol. (Taiwan, by contrast, uses a cellphone-tracking system to monitor the movements of those under quarantine.)
Entirely predictably, Canada is now starting to see its first cases of the B.1.617 variant, which is worrying because this so-called “double mutant” variant might be more transmissible and better able to evade an antibody response. On Wednesday, public-health authorities in Quebec announced they had detected their first case in the province, the same day B.C. authorities said they had identified 39 cases. By then, the U.K., France, New Zealand and other countries had either banned or imposed new restrictions on flights from India, which had been tracking more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases daily for nearly a week.
Yet a sense of urgency among Canadian officials, which would have been justified weeks earlier, was notably absent as recently as Wednesday. Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo replied that it is “practically impossible” to stop new variants from getting into Canada when asked about stopping flights, which is a consummate example of how the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Suspending travel is of course a way to buy time, to focus on putting out the forest fire without allowing a series of bushfires to spark up and multiply. But for the last year, Canada’s efforts on border controls have been enduringly chaotic, disjointed and come far too late.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that Canada has some of the strongest travel restrictions among peer nations (which is demonstrably untrue, as outlined above) and called existing measures “extremely effective” (which is also demonstrably untrue, as evidenced by the outbreaks of multiple variants all across Canada).
Canada suspended flights from the U.K. briefly in December and January on account of the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant but then allowed travel to resume after requiring pre-departure testing. It implemented enhanced screening measures for travellers from Brazil on account of the P.1 variant but recently dropped the extra screenings because, according to a statement the Public Health Agency of Canada gave to the Toronto Sun, the variant is already circulating in Canada anyway. And it stopped flights to so-called “sun destinations” to prevent winter getaways – a suspension that extends to present day – even though the Caribbean and Mexico are hardly COVID-19 hotspots compared to the other countries from which passenger planes are flying in each day. But we aren’t getting our AstraZeneca vaccines from Jamaica, nor is there the same political risk in stopping flights from Montego Bay as there is from Delhi.
Canadian authorities may persist with the wholly inaccurate and deliberately misleading claim that this country has the strongest border measures among peer nations, but allowing planes with infected passengers to land from hotspot nations every day, then sending people into loosely monitored and brief hotel quarantines, then trusting them to isolate at home for an extra couple of weeks, is hardly strong or comprehensive. Countries with successful border-control measures both clamped down on travel early and implemented rigorous quarantine measures. Canada, in its unyielding mediocrity, chose neither.
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