Three Air Transat Airbus A330s landed in Montreal from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, between Jan. 10 and 17. These are big planes, with room for about 350 passengers. The flights brought vacationers home. They also carried many cases of COVID-19.
Each of the flights, in fact, had so many cases on board that federal data indicates that every person, in every single row, may have been exposed to the virus. The story, an extreme version of something that has happened daily since the pandemic started, reflects Canada’s failure to protect the border.
International travel is strongly discouraged, we keep hearing from the Prime Minister and other officials. However, the border remains open for Canadians to come and go as they please. As such, there is far more Ottawa should be doing to stop those travellers from importing new cases of COVID-19.
Hong Kong employs a rigorous testing regime for arrivals; Canada doesn’t. Australia requires quarantine in a government facility at a cost of $3,000 a person; Canada’s quarantine rules effectively rely on the honour system.
Right now, COVID-19 cases from abroad are not Canada’s main problem. Community spread is rampant. Federal data suggests 4.4 per cent of recent cases were linked to travel. However, with no testing at the border, Canada’s data is of the don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t know variety. And more than half of Canada’s recent cases have no known source.
If Canada can drive domestic infection rates lower in the coming weeks, sealing the borders – not to travel or trade, but to new cases – will become much more important.
Ten months after the pandemic started, Canada’s supposedly closed border is still surprisingly open.
Last year, between March 21 and Dec. 27, more than 1.1 million Canadians flew home from a foreign country. Even though air traffic is down more than 90 per cent, Canada still saw about 65,000 people land in a week over Christmas, according to Canada Border Services.
Since last March, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about 1,600 international flights to Canada have had at least one passenger who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
The pace of imported infections is picking up. From early December to mid-January, roughly 600 international flights carried at least one case. That’s about the same as the number of flights with COVID-19 cases that landed in Canada in the half-year from mid-March through mid-September.
The surge is no surprise. Data compiled by CBC News shows that, on some days this month, the volume of flights between Canada and southern sojourns was nearly as high as a year ago, before the pandemic.
Alerting passengers who may have been exposed is as confused as ever. Last July, this page detailed the lack of contact tracing of travellers. In the case of this month’s flights from Haiti, Transat says it has no role in informing its passengers. Ottawa says contact tracing is up to the provinces. And in response to questions from The Globe Editorial Board, Quebec’s Health Ministry said the border is Ottawa’s problem.
WestJet took a useful step in September. It now e-mails passengers who have may have been exposed. Ottawa could mandate this for all airlines – or it could help a struggling industry by doing the job itself.
With case numbers climbing, and more infectious virus variants emerging, Ottawa this month finally moved to tighten the border. As of Jan. 7, travellers to Canada must produce a negative test before boarding, taken within three days of departure. There were some exceptions, including Haiti. As of Jan. 21, no countries are exempted. Since Jan. 7, WestJet has refused boarding to 540 people; Transat refused 472; Air Canada declined to provide a figure.
Ottawa’s testing requirement, though overdue, is imperfect. If a person is tested three days before a flight, it may come back negative if they were infected a day or three earlier. Then there’s the time between the test and the flight. That’s why, since Jan. 7, more than 130 flights have landed with at least one subsequently identified case.
And we haven’t even mentioned the more than 100,000 essential truckers crossing the border every week. Are they importing infections? Perhaps Canada could use some of its millions of rapid tests to find out.
Canada’s immediate challenge is wrestling down domestic infections. But if and when that happens, each new case coming across our porous border will matter more than ever.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.