A journalist who landed in Hong Kong on a flight from London this week documented her experience at border control on Twitter. It was something to behold.
According to Laurel Chor, upon landing she had to fill out a quarantine order and a health declaration, had to download a health app to her cellphone, and was given a tracking bracelet the size of a cigarette pack.
The Hong Kong native was told she would have to quarantine at home for 14 days. An official stamped and signed her quarantine order in duplicate. She had to provide details on her means of transportation for getting home. The same official explained to her how to track her symptoms and temperature on the app. Her cellphone number was tested to make sure it was working.
From the airport she was transported to an offsite hall, where she was handed a novel coronavirus testing kit. The self-test involved coughing up phlegm from the deepest place she could summon it, and then spitting into a container. A privacy booth was provided.
Then she waited in place for eight hours for the results. She tested negative but must still quarantine at home for 14 days, and submit to another test during that time.
This week, here in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed that Ottawa would implement “stronger measures” to screen people arriving in the country.
Which is the right thing to say. You know what would be the right thing to do? Bring in the kind of fail-safe controls that Hong Kong is using to stop imported infections.
The Trudeau government has focused its energy on getting dollars out the door to help Canadians and businesses survive the economic lockdown brought on by the pandemic. While Mr. Trudeau has been very specific about his economic program, he has provided few details on how he intends to keep travellers from bringing new infections here.
He just says the government will do.... something. But given the size of Canada’s land border with the United States and the massive amount of trade that rolls across it every hour, plus the relatively weak measures currently in place for monitoring travelers, his reassurances are not reassuring.
Under the current rules, a Canadian returning to Canada via land, rail or sea can do so even if they are showing symptoms of a coronavirus infection. They are not supposed to board a plane from another country if they have symptoms, but there is nothing, such as a test, to prevent someone from lying about their condition.
Once in Canada, all arrivals, Canadian or otherwise, and whether they have symptoms or not, are supposed to self-isolate for 14 days in the location of their choice. There is an exception for truck drivers, who don’t have to self-isolate if they have no symptoms.
But there is no testing, no tracking and no obligation for travellers to monitor their health and provide updates to public health authorities. Overseas travelers landing in a Canadian airport can even get on a connecting domestic flight before self-isolating, which makes no sense.
Compare that to Australia. Anyone arriving at one of its international airports must immediately go into a 14-day quarantine at a “designated facility,” at government expense. You can’t go home until that quarantine period is over, nor can you catch a connecting flight.
In South Korea, the rules are similarly strict, plus arriving passengers must report their symptoms to the government via cellphone app or telephone every day during their two-week quarantine.
Given the fact that Canadian airlines hope to resume many international flights in the coming weeks, and that the current ban on non-essential traffic to and from the U.S. could be lifted on June 21, Canadians need to know that Ottawa has a real plan to stop the virus at the border.
When it comes to quarantining travellers, Canada has rules. What it lacks are tools. The Trudeau government needs to recognize that the vast majority of Canadians will back strong measures to prevent travellers from importing a virus. Taking such steps, in the face of a pandemic, is reasonable and necessary.
Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia have done a much better job than Canada of fighting COVID-19. Border control has been part of their success. Ottawa must learn from what works.