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Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub

If you were on Air Canada Flight 311 on July 8, flying from Montreal to Vancouver, at least one other passenger on your flight, seated somewhere in rows 12 to 18, had COVID-19.

In fact, in the first nine days of this month, there were 14 other domestic flights with confirmed cases of COVID-19 on board. Another 24 international flights arrived with at least one positive case, originating from such places as Charlotte, N.C., and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

All of the above is on the Government of Canada’s website, buried deep in a section covering “locations where you may have been exposed to COVID-19.” You can also find some of it tucked away on provincial websites, such as that of the BC Centre for Disease Control.

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But if you were on one of these flights, you may be wondering why this is all news to you. You may be wondering why you weren’t ever called by a public-health agency, or told to get tested, or ordered to self-isolate.

So are we.

Canada’s response to COVID-19, which these past four months has leaned heavily on the blunt and destructive instrument of economic lockdown, has delivered results. The country is set up for a reopening. For now, Canada looks to be in a good place.

However, additional waves of the virus are possible and even likely, and the goal must be for the country to be prepared to fend off the adversary without resorting to another economic shutdown. This country has to give itself finely engineered tools, so it can defeat future outbreaks with surgical strikes, rather than a return to carpet bombing the economy.

This is where Canadians should be worried. Over the past five months, Ottawa and the provinces have shown a talent for rolling out multibillion dollar rescue packages; their record is less good when it comes to taking steps – much less costly steps – to prevent massive, economy-wide bailouts.

An example of where governments have got it right with small investments forestalling big losses, is the way B.C. protected temporary foreign workers in agriculture, and the province’s agriculture sector. B.C. could have lowered COVID-19 risks by simply banning migrant workers – at a huge cost in lost jobs, bankrupt farmers, and food not harvested.

Instead, B.C. allowed the workers to come and the farms to operate, while minimizing opportunities for the virus. It included setting up a system to quarantine workers when they arrived, in hotels, at government expense. B.C. spent pennies to save dollars. The cost? Just $10-million.

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But back to the airports.

One of the pillars for preventing new outbreaks is quick and efficient contact tracing, so that when a COVID-19 case is discovered, its spread can be limited by swiftly locating and isolating everyone who came into contact with the infected person. One of the easiest places to contact trace should be an airplane. The airline has your name, your address and your phone number. It knows where you sat.

Yet, when the federal government gets postflight information on a passenger who turns out to have been infected, it does not contact others on that flight. It simply posts the news in the bowels of its own website, and informs provincial health authorities. And those provincial health authorities? The B.C. Centre for Disease Control suggests that passengers seated near one of those confirmed cases of COVID-19 “should self-isolate and monitor for symptoms for 14 days.” But how would anyone know to do that?

“Effective March 27th,” the BCCDC website says, “B.C. no longer directly contacts passengers from domestic flights who were seated near a confirmed case during the flight. Instead, that information is posted online.” Ditto for international flights. This is, in a word, nuts. It isn’t enough to quietly post infection information on a website – a website no airline passenger knows about – and expect people to find it, and to self-isolate because of it.

Contact tracing after travellers with infections are discovered; testing arrivals from overseas; screening travellers to prevent people with COVID-19 from crossing the border – these are areas where governments have to step up. And the logical government to take the lead is Ottawa.

As B.C. did with agriculture, Ottawa could do for air travel. It’s not about spending billions to bail out an industry. It’s about spending millions on the tools to allow an industry to safely reopen, and stay open.

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Editor’s note: (Aug. 11, 2020) An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of international flights which arrived with at least one COVID-19 case.
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