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Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said this week that the third-country testing rule was required because COVID-19 tests are 'imperfect' and because there is a need for 'unusual and strict conditions' in the current Omicron situation.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government is facing mounting global pressure to reverse its new Canadian border rules that are widely seen as discriminatory and unscientific for their ban on foreign visitors from 10 African countries and their rejection of coronavirus tests from those countries.

With the Omicron variant now detected in at least 57 countries worldwide and already spreading locally in many of these countries, the travel bans by Canada and other Western governments are increasingly being denounced as a form of segregation that unfairly punishes African countries.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other critics have described the Western bans as “travel apartheid.”

Canada’s requirement for third-country testing – refusing to let travellers use COVID-19 tests from the banned African countries – has compounded the controversy. It has become a major issue in one of the banned countries, South Africa, which was the first to detect and report Omicron last month. World Health Organization officials have also condemned the Canadian rule.

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Health experts says South Africa’s PCR testing network is as good or better than that of Canada, because it has two decades of mass-scale experience in a similar technique, HIV viral load testing. Many experts say the Canadian policy is racially discriminatory in implying that African laboratories are inferior.

Canada is the only country among the Group of Seven that requires third-country testing for its own citizens who are returning from the banned African countries. Travel rules from Germany, the United States, France, Britain, Italy and Japan make no mention of out-of-country testing requirements, making Canada’s rules the most cumbersome for citizens trying to return home. (Japan though, has a much broader ban on foreign nationals, and last week suspended all entries, except for exceptional circumstances, until Dec. 31.)

The Canadian government announced a temporary exemption last weekend to allow hundreds of Canadians to return home on Lufthansa flights from Africa, but the exemption was only for eight days.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said this week that the third-country testing rule was required because COVID-19 tests are “imperfect” and because there is a need for “unusual and strict conditions” in the current Omicron situation.

“Not all tests detect both COVID-19 and the new variant, and also because of the time it takes for people to be sufficiently viral-charged for those tests to be effective, and these are long journeys,” Mr. Duclos told The Globe and Mail.

“So we believe, at least that’s what public-health officials say, we believe that this third-country test measure, however difficult it may be for some to follow it, is necessary in the current context.”

He has also defended Canada’s decision to ban travel from only the 10 African countries, despite Omicron’s presence in dozens of other countries in Europe and North America. At a recent media briefing, he said there was a “significant level of exportation” of the Omicron variant from those 10 countries, although he did not provide data on this.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the government should focus its travel rules on dealing with people once they arrive in Canada. “We think the best approach is what experts have said is testing on arrival in Canada and a good quarantining system,” he said. “That’s what experts are saying is the most effective way to keep Canadians safe. We agree.”

Last week, one of the co-chairs of the Canadian government’s own COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel, Irfan Dhalla, said the “science does not support one approach for travellers from Africa and another approach for travellers from other continents.” He said the government should have “a single, coherent framework” for all travellers.

The panel has not released updated testing and quarantining advice for Canada’s borders since its May report – which the government never fully followed.

The travel bans by Canada and other Western countries have had disastrous consequences for the tourism industry in many African countries in what is normally a crucial tourism month.

African leaders have intensified their criticism this week. The African Union said the travel bans will discourage countries from sharing their data in the future, “potentially posing a threat to health security on the continent and globally.” It called for the “urgent rescinding of selective travel bans” imposed on African countries.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a tour of four African countries this week, criticized the travel bans in each of his stops. He was applauded in Senegal when he attacked Western governments for imposing the bans without any consultation or discussion with African countries.

“Where is the science?” Mr. Ramaphosa asked during his Senegal visit. “These countries have always said to us that we should base our decisions on science. But when the time comes for them to apply it to themselves, they do not, but they resort to their own self-interest.”

The travel bans are “hypocrisy of the worst order” and a complete contradiction of promises by Group of 20 countries at their October summit, in which they pledged to support the recovery of the badly damaged tourism sector in the developing world, Mr. Ramaphosa said.

In an earlier speech in Ghana, he described the travel bans as “a slap in the face” to African excellence in science. “It was African scientists who detected this variant first. It was African scientific expertise, particularly in genomic sequencing, that brought it to the world’s attention.”

In addition to devastating the African tourism sector, the travel bans have wreaked havoc on the plans of many Canadians, some of whom were stranded in southern Africa until the temporary exemption was granted.

In some cases, family reunification has been blocked. Hannah Woolaver, a Canadian law professor at the University of Cape Town who is currently in Ontario, has been told that her husband cannot enter Canada to spend Christmas with her and their seven-month-old son.

Her husband, a dual citizen of South Africa and Britain, is currently in South Africa. Because of ambiguities in the travel rules, airlines have told him he needs written authorization to enter Canada, and the Canadian high commission in Pretoria has declined to provide it.

“As a young family, it is incredibly distressing to be separated during the pandemic,” Prof. Woolaver told The Globe. “We are very frustrated by the confusion and contradictory information from different parts of the government. As a Canadian, I feel that the government has failed us.”

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