Travellers returning from Africa say Canadian quarantine hotels have no laundry service, so they sit in dirty clothes eating bad food as they wait to hear when they can leave, even after getting the negative COVID-19 test result that is supposed to set them free.
In the past two weeks, the Liberal government announced new restrictions in response to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization, public-health experts and scientists say the policy unfairly singles out African countries, while Omicron has been identified in dozens of others, including 18 in Europe.
In Canada, business and tourism groups and federal opposition parties say the rules have been poorly executed. They include requiring travellers from 10 African countries to isolate in a federally managed hotel near the airport until they get a negative result from their on-arrival test.
But travellers in quarantine hotels said even after they received their negative result, they waited days for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials to discharge them. And many are still waiting. At the hotels, they said they struggled to get diapers for babies, were served subpar food and were not provided laundry services. Some, after negative results, left without the go-ahead, fed up with waiting.
Mary Ellen Havlik, a humanitarian consultant in Nigeria, said she spent four days at the hotel without her luggage, and is relieved to be free. She arrived in Toronto on Friday, received her negative test result Saturday, but was not allowed to leave until Monday.
“These measures feel draconian, and I think that it’s really surprising that the Liberal government would react so poorly,” Ms. Havlik, 55, told The Globe and Mail.
She said when she arrived at the Hilton hotel, she was met by people in hazmat suits, and the lobby was covered in plastic. She and the others were given a pamphlet, she said, that warned against taking photos or videos or identifying the location. “It was just dystopian.”
Ms. Havlik and others in quarantine created a WhatsApp group to share information. Everyone was vaccinated, she said, and all were prepared to isolate. But the poor management at the facility left people “irate.”
She said the woman in the room next to her, a breast cancer survivor, ran out of medication and was in pain for days, with no one helping her. A couple with young children ran out of diapers, Ms. Havlik said.
“People were starting to get really belligerent. Some people were throwing their food out the window.”
In the meantime, they were desperately trying to find out from Public Health when they could leave.
In response to questions from The Globe, PHAC laid out the quarantine process in a statement, but did not address the travellers’ concerns. Mark Johnson, a spokesperson, said every person staying at a quarantine hotel has access to 24-hour support and medical monitoring.
Larry and Liezel Kennedy and their two boys, who are 6 and 13 months old, were still in the hotel late Monday.
Mr. Kennedy said his family arrived in Toronto on Friday from Johannesburg. Like Ms. Havlik, they arrived at the hotel without their luggage. “We’ve had the same two sets of clothes since Wednesday.”
He said he’s watched people leave after their negative test result without waiting for permission. His family doesn’t have that option. Even though they tested negative, they need approval from a public-health officer to book their plane tickets to Calgary. He said the food brought to the rooms is “stone cold,” and there is no menu for kids, so his baby was given a giant burger.
Mr. Kennedy said the Red Cross brought milk for the baby. But he also requested diapers, and they were out of his son’s size.
In a statement, Kirsten Long, a spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross, said her organization is working “in support” of PHAC to “provide comfort and care to returning travellers.”
Laura Ford, a spokesperson for Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel & Suites, said a third party is running all of the hotel’s operations and services.
At the Vancouver airport, a similar scenario played out for 34-year-old Sara Sagaii, who was brought to the Pacific Gateway hotel on Thursday, received her negative test result on Friday, but had to wait a day before getting approval to be released. Ms. Sagaii was in Egypt when Canada put the country under its travel ban, but she managed to get a flight through Turkey. People in hazmat suits greeted her in the plastic-draped lobby of the Vancouver hotel, and during her three-day stay she said she was served a “basically rotten” salad and was unable to access clean laundry.
She said it would be easier to accept the restrictions if she thought the policy would protect Canadians, but it feels like she was “punished for coming from Egypt.”
“There are cases all over Europe, and the only two people who got pulled out of that arrival from Istanbul was me and another guy from Nigeria. Honestly, the racism aspect of it is huge.”
In Question Period, cabinet ministers fielded questions about the new rules. Both inside and outside the House of Commons, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino defended the rules as “a necessary and fair trade-off to make sure that we are appropriately managing this new variant of concern.”
“We put the measures in place to protect Canadians,” Mr. Mendicino told reporters. “The expectation would be that when travellers are going to isolate … where they’re coming from one of the countries of concern, that they get access to appropriate food and accommodation.”
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said the government’s policies are not defensible purely from a public-health standpoint because the inconsistency “sticks out like a sore thumb.” But he said the government is also making policy based on economic and political considerations. For example, the importance of trade with the United States makes imposing harsh travel restrictions on Americans difficult.
He urged people not to travel, and said he supports restrictions given the concerns about new and possibly more serious variants. “We need to throw what we can at this,” Prof. Furness said, adding that means making travel more difficult and expensive, and less attractive. Still, he said the inequities poorer countries face are “hugely problematic.”
He said he agrees with critiques that “we deny vaccines to the global south and then we turn them into pariahs,” but he added, “I’m not sure that’s a good reason to open borders and accelerate the spread of Omicron here.”
The NDP called on the government to make clear expectations for the care Canadians should expect, and the Conservatives called the circumstances “inexcusable.”
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