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People line up at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 26.Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

New federal travel rules, criticized by many scientists and health experts, have left some Canadians stranded in southern Africa while forcing others to spend unexpected time in a war-torn country on their way home.

Under a rule imposed last month, Canadians are prohibited from using a COVID-19 test from any southern African country if they are returning to Canada from one of those countries. Instead, they must obtain a molecular test from a third country. This has forced some Canadians to stop in Ethiopia on their way home, despite federal advisories against travel to the country because of its civil war.

On the weekend, the federal government announced a temporary exemption but only for one airline, Germany’s Lufthansa, and only for a week. The exemption allows transit through Frankfurt’s airport.

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Scientists and other experts have sharply criticized the Canadian refusal to accept southern African tests. South African laboratories are considered world class and detected the new Omicron variant before any other country did, they noted.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world to insist on third-country tests for its travellers after imposing a travel ban on southern African countries. It now faces condemnation from the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Twitter on Sunday, he said it was “dismaying that some countries aren’t accepting negative COVID-19 tests from countries of origin and instead require tests only from third countries.”

One of South Africa’s top scientists, vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi, said on Saturday that he is “lost for words” at Canada’s refusal to accept South African tests.

Mosa Moshabela, a public-health expert who is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the Canadian rule was “unbelievable.” Clayson Monyela, the head of public diplomacy in South Africa’s international relations department, demanded an explanation from Canada and asked why it “doubted our testing capacity” after trusting the South African scientists who first detected the Omicron variant.

Canada is already facing strong criticism from many African leaders and scientists for including only African countries on its travel-ban list, even though Omicron has now been detected in at least 44 countries worldwide and has been spreading in the community in some European countries without any connections to travel.

The temporary exemption for the Lufthansa flights will allow many stranded Canadians to return home – including the Canadian junior national women’s field hockey team, which had been in South Africa to compete in the now-cancelled Junior World Cup. The team will be able to return home on Lufthansa this week. But the exemption came too late to prevent travel nightmares for some Canadians.

There are no direct flights from southern Africa to Canada, so Canadians normally transit through European cities or the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the biggest flight hub on the African continent. All of those routes were blocked by the new rules, leaving many Canadians stranded.

A large number of Canadians were turned away from scheduled flights on Lufthansa and other airlines last week. In a bureaucratic Catch-22, they were required to get their tests in transit, but there wasn’t enough time in transit to get the test results.

Some Canadians found that their only route home was through Addis Ababa, where they had to leave the airport to seek a COVID-19 test in the city.

Robyn Jones, a Canadian living in South Africa, said she and her husband and three children were obliged to spend 26 hours in Addis Ababa last week to get the required test. After being barred from their scheduled Ethiopian Airlines flight from Johannesburg to Toronto last Monday, they managed to get onto a flight the following day, but then had to leave the Addis Ababa airport to get their COVID-19 tests. She said the family felt very unsafe in their unplanned Ethiopia visit.

“We had to overnight in Addis for a test at great expense and in a dangerous country with a travel advisory,” she told The Globe and Mail. “Feel very let down by Canadian government. It has been a trip from hell!”

In total, 16 Canadians were barred from their flight on the Ethiopian airline last Monday because of the new rule, she said.

In its latest message on Sunday, the Canadian government told Canadian citizens in South Africa that they should not take any flights that transit through Addis Ababa because Canadians are being urged to “avoid all travel” to Ethiopia.

Richard Saunders, a York University political science professor who was stranded in South Africa last week, said Canadian officials at first advised him to fly through Addis Ababa – while also cautioning him that he could be placed in quarantine for 14 days in Ethiopia if his test was positive and he could not expect any Canadian embassy help because of their reduced staff levels owing to the civil war.

Mr. Saunders was eventually able to fly out of South Africa on a Lufthansa flight on Sunday evening, but remains critical of the third-country rule. “It smacks of panic and politics infused with a distinct anti-African bias,” he told The Globe. “It doesn’t appear to be based on science.”

Mr. Saunders, who has been living and working in southern Africa since the 1980s, said he wondered if the Canadian government realized how much damage it had inflicted on its reputation by imposing discriminatory rules on the region.

Francis Moran, a Canadian whose two sisters were stranded in South Africa for more than a week because of the third-country test rule, said Canada was effectively denying its citizens their fundamental right of return. The rule was “unnecessary and redundant,” he said.

Belinda Dodson, an Ottawa-based academic expert on Africa migration issues, said the Canadian third-country rule was based on “ignorance and political posturing” and “racist ideas about Africa.”

Global Affairs Canada, asked for a response to the criticism, told The Globe that it would not be able to comment until Monday.

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