Flights from India, Pakistan suspended for 30 days
As variants rage, restricted travel long overdue
The federal government finally did the right thing by banning flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days — but only after it had tried everything else.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the higher number of cases of new variants required him to issue a notice halting direct passenger traffic from the two countries from 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He said there are currently no flights arriving from Brazil, but the government would not hesitate to apply restrictions to other hot spots.
The government will also require travellers coming from India and Pakistan, via a third country, to obtain a negative COVID test in that country, in the hope the measure reduces the number of people transiting through, for example, London.
All these measures are long overdue.
In science, data solves disagreements. But that form of conflict resolution does not apply in politics.
The data is pretty stark. Over a six-week period from early March, 22 flights landed in Vancouver from Delhi carrying passengers subsequently found to have COVID. The numbers are similar for flights landing from the subcontinent in Toronto.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said while travellers from India constitute 20 per cent of traffic, they represent 50 per cent of all positive tests upon landing. She said the numbers are similar for Pakistan.
Yet Canada has allowed the flights to keep coming, in the face of clear evidence that travellers are importing new variants into provinces that are struggling to contain burgeoning caseloads.
Why? The government denies it is related to vaccine diplomacy but does acknowledge that shipments of three million doses of Astrazeneca's vaccine, being produced by India's Serum Institute, have been suspended, with only half of the order delivered.
India is shattering global infection records, with 315,000 new cases of COVID reported on Thursday. Understandably, it needs all the vaccine it can produce. The “double mutant” variant is proving to be highly infectious, though it has not yet been deemed to be more lethal. It is sufficiently nasty that countries like the U.K. have banned direct flights.
Yet, packed Air Canada flights from Delhi have been landing every day in Toronto and Vancouver.
The federal government was clearly ill-disposed toward acting, but the weight of voices calling for flights to be suspended and for tighter enforcement at the U.S. border has proven irresistible. MPS voted unanimously on Thursday to back a Bloc Québécois motion to suspend non-essential passenger flights from countries with outbreaks of COVID like India and Brazil.
Given the evidence, Ottawa should have been in the vanguard of this action weeks ago.
“We have some of the strongest measures in the world, in terms of borders,” the prime minister has said repeatedly.
Ministers have been hiding behind the evasion that importation rates are low and community transmission is the main spreader of the disease. That's clearly the case, but how did the variants get here in the first place? And why help propagate them by allowing in more carriers from abroad?
On Thursday morning, Conservative Leader Erin O'toole urged the federal government to move more quickly to contain the new variants by suspending flights from hot spots.
Later in the day, a joint letter to the prime minister from Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier Francois Legault pointed out that, while they have encouraged all residents to stay home, and have even imposed restrictions at their own land borders, they can do nothing about new variants entering via international travel.
They also called for the federal government to take more protective action at the Canada-u.s. border and address issues in the quarantine rules that have seen cases of falsified COVID testing documents and travellers opting to pay fines over complying with quarantine requirements.
Public Health Agency statistics suggest that hundreds have taken the view that a $3,000 fine is preferable to spending three nights in a government-approved quarantine hotel and having to pay $2,000 for the pleasure.
B.C.'S chief public health officer, Bonnie Henry, is another who has criticized the federal government for failing to provide enough resources to ensure international travellers remain in isolation for the required period.
There is obviously an element of buck-passing, with both premiers keen to deflect from their own blunders. But the federal government has been consistent in its sluggishness when it comes to the importation of the virus. Australia's quarantine program was introduced in March last year; Canada didn't require proof of a negative COVID test until Jan. 7 of this.
After Trudeau's “more everything” budget, O'toole doesn't have many cards to play. But the prime minister's failure to keep people safe is one. Australia has had a total of just 30,000 cases and 910 deaths thanks in part to its tough border policies, compared to 1.15 million cases in Canada and nearly 24,000 deaths. Why have we not been more successful at keeping dangerous variants out of the country?
Now that they are here, why are we still allowing domestic flights to criss-cross the country, when such jurisdictions as British Columbia have restricted their citizens from moving around inside its borders? The P1 variant that emerged from Brazil is concentrated in that province (2,062 of 2,476 recorded cases) and every effort should be made to ensure it remains contained.
There is frustration at the restrictions that extend beyond the ding-a-lings who think COVID is a communist plot designed to infringe on their personal liberties. But these variants are proving harder to contain than the original virus, and they require stricter measures.
Obstetricians are reporting that in some intensive care units, pregnant women make up half the number of critically ill COVID patients, with a number on ventilators. Ottawa's Dr. Mark Walker told the Citizen that they are the sickest pregnant women he has ever treated in his 20-year career.
We can only hope that we are experiencing the darkness before the dawn. But in the meantime, Ottawa should look at temporarily suspending interprovincial flights in similar fashion to the way it has restricted international travel.