Ambarish Chandra is an economics professor at the University of Toronto. His recent research examines travel across the U.S.-Canada border.
Travel restrictions and border closures can evolve quickly in the pandemic era. In just the past few days, the new Omicron variant has been identified in multiple locations in southern Africa and caused numerous countries to restrict travel from the region. Canada has banned all foreign citizens who have recently travelled to one of seven African countries, echoing similar steps by the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile the WHO has cautioned against these actions, prompting debate about whether such measures have any effect.
The WHO’s response has merit. Canada’s experience with travel restrictions over the course of the pandemic suggests that it is futile to prevent variants from entering Canada, given our extensive interconnections with other countries, especially the United States. Indeed, there is only a tenuous link between the timing of border closures and case spikes in targeted countries.
Moreover, past border closures and travel restrictions have been applied unevenly and grossly unfairly. When the U.K. reported the new Alpha variant, Canada imposed a flight ban on that country on Dec. 20, 2020. This was lifted after 17 days, even though the Alpha wave continued to cause a massive rise in case numbers in Britain for many more weeks. By contrast, when India reported the Delta variant, Canada banned all travellers from that country for 158 days, from Apr. 22 to Sep. 26. This was despite cases peaking in India in early May and remaining low throughout the summer. The double standard was obvious and, regardless, both the Alpha and Delta variants eventually made their way to Canada.
The speed with which the latest travel bans have been imposed on southern African countries suggests yet again that Canada is quick to impose harsh measures on the developing world but reluctant to do so with wealthy, Western countries. Multiple reports suggest that the Omicron variant was already present in Belgium and the Netherlands at the time these bans were imposed, but there is no discussion of extending measures to those countries.
We need to be ready for Omicron, but let’s not assume the worst
Canada’s travel restrictions with respect to the United States have not been logical. We restricted travel even during last spring, when the U.S. had a far faster vaccine rollout and a lower number of cases per capita than we did. Conversely, we finally reopened to non-essential travel in August, just when the U.S. was experiencing the peak of its Delta wave of cases. The U.S., in turn, banned travellers from Europe for most of the pandemic, when that region’s number of per-capita cases were usually lower, only to lift them this month when the number of European cases was higher.
In the early days of the pandemic, the WHO warned against travel restrictions, arguing that these could prevent aid and resources from getting to where they were needed. This was recently apparent in Canada when flood-hit residents of B.C. badly needed access to fuel and supplies across the border, but still needed to show a negative COVID-19 test on their return – until the government hastily dropped the requirement. Earlier, Canadians were clamouring for vaccines that were freely available in the U.S. but were prevented by border closures from accessing them.
The WHO’s admonishment was prescient and accurate: it is entirely possible that these travel restrictions have caused more harm than they have prevented. Now, with Canada’s already strained supply chains and rising inflation, we cannot afford further uncertainty with regard to the U.S. border, given that we rely on 15,000 trucks that enter on a daily basis.
While new variants cannot realistically be kept out of any country that maintains links with the rest of the world, travel restrictions can conceivably delay the initial spread, which can be useful to buy time. But this only matters if we expect an imminent change in conditions, such as the deployment of new vaccines or medicines, or a material expansion of medical facilities. This was arguably true in April, 2020, as we scrambled to secure personal protective equipment for health care workers, and in February, 2021, when new vaccines were on the horizon. But no new treatments are imminent.
Travel restrictions are easy to impose but very difficult to undo, because of both bureaucratic inertia and the reluctance of governments to take the blame for later developments. Opposition parties and provincial leaders are already demanding restrictions because they are popular. However, they are discriminatory and, ultimately, self-defeating.
The Omicron variant is already in Canada. The federal and provincial governments should act as they see fit with respect to domestic containment, but they should not pretend that foreign travel restrictions will make any difference.
The Omicron variant: More on The Decibel
Globe and Mail science correspondent Ivan Semeniuk explains what we know so far about Omicron and how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against it. Subscribe for more episodes.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.