Ottawa's sudden decision to stop issuing visas to travellers from the three West African countries hit by the Ebola epidemic may sound like a reasonable response to the outbreak. It isn't. The travel ban is wrong in many ways. It is at odds with steps taken by Canada's allies and friends. It is a violation of international agreements. And worst of all, if the goal is to protect Canadians against infectious diseases, it's an unsound policy.
The visa ban quietly went into effect last Friday. It bars people from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea who want to emigrate to or travel in Canada, as well as foreign nationals who have visited those countries in the past three months. A number of smaller countries (Gabon, Haiti, Mauritius, North Korea) have imposed similar restrictions, but Canada joins Australia as the only wealthy, developed nation to do so.
In the United States, the White House has rightly been countering politically inspired fearmongering and resisting calls to impose an entry ban. The World Health Organization's best advice also runs counter to Ottawa's decision. Its officials point out that Canada signed the WHO's International Health Regulations, which among other things contain a binding agreement to not impose travel restrictions above and beyond those recommended by the WHO during a global health crisis. These regulations were created in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto – during which the WHO mistakenly imposed a travel ban advisory on Canada's largest city, needlessly leading to billions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.
Many Canadians were incensed by that travel advisory. They should be equally upset Ottawa's blanket ban on people from three beleaguered African states. One of the major arguments against travel bans during epidemics is that afflicted countries might become reluctant to admit to the severity of an outbreak if they fear isolation from the international community. Ottawa's isolation strategy reinforces that fear, and that could come back to haunt us.
Yes, Ebola is scary. Yes, the government must plan for the worst. But reason and balance are as important as prudence. This is a disease that is difficult to catch and easy to isolate in a wealthy Western country. Canada has the resources and know-how to be a leader in the fight against Ebola. Instead, we are on a very short list of leading nations that have moved to back of the pack by badly overreacting.