A 33-year-old Australian woman this week attempted a great escape – from mandatory quarantine.
It was dinnertime at the government quarantine facility near Darwin, Northern Territory, when the woman threw her bags over the fence, scaled the barrier and headed off. Police apprehended her shortly thereafter. Another traveller doing his two weeks in isolation said he didn’t understand why she’d done it, since they have everyone’s contact information, so “it’s not like they can’t track her down.”
In an effort to minimize new cases of COVID-19, Australia has instituted some of the world’s toughest quarantine rules. Unlike Canada, when someone arrives from overseas, they aren’t sent on their merry way with an on-your-honour promise to hole up at home for two weeks.
Australia requires returning travellers to quarantine at government-supervised facilities, in most cases at their own expense. Travellers flying in to Sydney are charged roughly $3,000 for meals and accommodation; the bill is $5,000 for a family of four.
Canadian officials, of course, continue to strongly recommend against non-essential foreign travel. However, there have not been strong measures to either discourage foreign travel or to bring in a testing regime robust enough to make foreign travel safe.
Ottawa made a big deal about “closing” the border last March, but it really only applies to foreign tourists. It doesn’t cover Canadians leaving or coming home, or essential travellers, notably truckers. The system to monitor travellers and their health is minimal security theatre.
The worrying discovery of a highly infectious variant of COVID-19, dubbed B.1.1.7, woke Ottawa up. The variant could be an accelerant to what is already a devastating second wave.
Staring this down, Ottawa finally acted, in a hastily announced decision on New Year’s Eve. Travellers returning to Canada by air must now show proof of a negative PCR test, taken within three days of coming home. The new rule came into effect on Thursday. It is a good idea, notwithstanding its abrupt rollout, but it could have been done months ago.
Look at Taiwan. Last June, it began requiring foreigners to present a negative PCR test on arrival. As of Dec. 1, that is now required of all people arriving in the country.
Look at Hong Kong. There travellers are tested on arrival. Hong Kong also requires a negative PCR test before arrival from countries such as the United States and Canada. And as of Dec. 25, the quarantine period for arriving travellers was extended to 21 days from 14, at the travellers’ expense, at designated hotels.
It has been said places such as Australia and Taiwan have done well against the virus because they are islands. However, in the world of the virus, all countries are to some extent islands. A study last August showed the virus primarily moves between countries by plane. Australia and Taiwan may be islands, but Hong Kong and South Korea are not; all have had success against the virus because they took the threat seriously, and took action.
Canada is currently grappling with a wave of domestic infections; the border is not our main problem. But if and when local transmission is under control, the border will matter – as it should have been paid attention to last winter, when the pandemic started, and last summer, when Canada’s case count was low.
It is not a coincidence that the number of new daily cases in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are under one per 100,000, while Canada’s infection rate is more than 20 times higher, and climbing. Australia’s Northern Territory has just 18 active cases of COVID-19. All are linked to international travel.
Canada’s number of imported infections is now small, compared with the domestic explosion, but the virus is still landing each day from outside our borders, as it has been since the start of the pandemic. On Jan. 2, a dozen flights arrived with what were, as of Jan. 7, confirmed cases of COVID-19. Eight landed in Calgary, mostly from warm getaways. One flight from Palm Springs appears to have had at least three cases on board.
Canada has not taken the virus at the border seriously enough. The new test rules are welcome, but their abrupt introduction, a year after the discovery of COVID-19, is one more example of Canada’s shambolic pandemic response.
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