Madhu Lall, along with his wife Samira and in-laws Ratna and Samir Sen, travelled to India after a family home had suffered serious damage.
They arrived in March and planned to return in May, but their flight was cancelled when Canada announced a ban on flights from India. Their rescheduled flight for late May was also cancelled when the ban was extended.
“I think we have been totally stymied,” said Mr. Lall, in a phone interview from New Delhi. “We hit a stone wall and we really don’t know how to proceed.”
Syed Shafiq Ul Haq has been trying to travel home from Pakistan. After receiving a negative COVID-19 test, he scheduled a flight to Canada, connecting through Turkey. But he cancelled his trip after learning that he would have to quarantine for 14 days in Turkey, and needed a visa to enter the country.
“I realized that it’s too costly, everything is too expensive,” he said.
There are many Canadians like Mr. Lall and Mr. Shafiq Ul Haq, who are stranded in India and Pakistan because of travel restrictions.
The ban on direct flights from India and Pakistan was one of several actions taken by the Canadian government to reduce transmission of the virus, especially the variant now known as Delta, which was first reported in India.
Canada’s ban on flights from those countries went into place on April 22 for 30 days. When the ban was set to expire in May, the government extended it for another 30 days, to June 21.
They must either wait out the ban, with the risk of contracting the virus, or face the challenge of navigating complicated flight paths home.
There are 20,341 Canadians registered with the Registration of Canadians Abroad in India and 6,909 Canadians registered in Pakistan, according to Global Affairs Canada.
Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan said dozens of Canadians have contacted his office, primarily people who are stuck in India, but also those trying to return from Pakistan.
“It’s definitely noteworthy that a lot of these people went to India from here, not for leisure, but in most cases under unfortunate circumstances,” he said.
“I feel like we should be doing something to at least bring the Canadians back safely under proper health measures,” he said, adding that it is up to public-health officials to determine whether the ban should be lifted.
Brampton, Ont., Mayor Patrick Brown said many people in his hard-hit community have called for the flight ban because they were concerned about variants getting into the country.
Even the current ban, he said, has been criticized for being a “half measure” because travel agents continue to rebook flights using alternate routes. Mr. Brown said people are still travelling between India and Canada.
“I’ve heard complaints about how the price has gone up, or it’s an inconvenient route, but I’m hearing more of the opposite, that people are frustrated that their neighbours are still going,” said Mr. Brown, whose Peel Region city has a large South Asian population.
Mr. Brown said while he has been critical of the Ontario government’s vaccine rollout, particularly for not focusing on hot spots quickly enough, he agrees with Premier Doug Ford that there could have been stricter border measures.
“We’re really concerned about the Delta variant and we desperately need a priority on second doses in Peel,” he said.
Politicians have been calling for a faster rollout of second doses of the vaccine in the wake of concerns about the Delta variant, which was first reported in Canada in late April and now makes up one-quarter of COVID-19 cases in Peel.
Indirect flight paths can be complex, requiring Canadians to navigate a patchwork of Canadian travel requirements for international travellers re-entering the country, while having to parse and comply with different requirements in countries where layovers are located.
Mr. Lall said his family cannot travel along a flight route with multiple layovers, because for the elderly family members travelling, “this would be like asking them to climb Everest.”
Kelley Lee, a researcher in global health at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who leads the Pandemics and Borders Project, an international group that researches cross-border measures to handle pandemics, said that while border restrictions do help slow the spread of the virus, Canada waited too long to put those measures in place. The government has consistently taken a reactive instead of preventative approach, she said.
“We dithered around. It took like two-and-a-half to three months to finally put something in place,” Ms. Lee said. By that time, she said, the variants were already in the country and “it was like closing the barn door after the horse bolted.”
She also said that Canada has applied travel measures inconsistently, leaving the border porous to entry of positive cases and possible spread.
Depending on if a traveller enters the country by land or air, Ms. Lee said, they are subject to different quarantine and testing requirements. They also may not have to follow those rules if they fall under one of the government’s many exemptions.
Ms. Lee said about 93 per cent of land travel and 35 per cent of air travel is currently exempt from quarantine and testing.
She also pointed out that travel bans on hot-spot countries are not particularly effective, given that travellers can get home on an indirect flight path. She said they also fail to account for the highly interconnected nature of modern life, citing the lack of a flight ban on Britain despite the spread of variants from India as an example.
Pakistan’s case counts are much lower but is subject to the same degree of restrictions as India, which for the past few months has been the hardest hit country in the world.
Asked about both countries being treated this way by Canada, Mr. Shafiq Ul Haq said, “It’s absolutely nonsense. I mean, it really made me angry.”
A recent Health Canada report gave new recommendations from their advisory panel for land and air border measures. According to the report, country-specific travel restrictions are not recommended because travellers can find ways to circumvent them.
The panel also “does not currently see substantial incremental value in testing onward travellers at airports considering the other testing points throughout the traveller’s journey,” the report states.
Allison St-Jean, a spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said in the case of India and Pakistan, the government is following developments closely and will determine the next steps regarding the ban on flights based on the evidence and advice of public-health experts.
The government has advised against non-essential travel outside of Canada since the onset of the pandemic in March, 2020.
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