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Canada imposes ban on passenger flights from India, Pakistan for 30 days

OTTAWA — The federal government is imposing a 30-day ban on all commercial and private flights from India and Pakistan effective Thursday at 11:30 p.m. EST, as COVID-19 infections continue to surge in those countries. Ministers of health, immigration, transport, public safety, and intergovernmental affairs delivered the update in a joint press conference Thursday evening, as the government faces pressure to curb variant spread domestically.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said they are imposing the temporary ban as more passengers arrive in Canada with positive test results from those two countries. “Given the higher number of cases of COVID-19 detected in air passengers arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan, Transport Canada is issuing a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, to halt direct passenger air traffic from those countries,” said Alghabra. Additionally, if travellers departing from those two countries take an indirect route home, they’ll be required to show a negative PCR test at their last point of departure.

Once they arrive in Canada, they’ll follow the standard protocols, unless exempt, including taking another test and booking a stay at a designated government hotel while they await their result. Alghabra said the government won’t hesitate to ban flights from other countries as the science evolves. He also insisted that Canadians avoid “falling into the trap of blaming an identifiable group for causing COVID-19.

We’ve seen this with Asian Canadians, we must reject scapegoating. This virus is not Chinese, nor is it Indian, it effects us all.” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the temporary ban will allow Canada’s public health experts to collect more data about the epidemiology in those regions.

“I want to say that our hearts are with the citizens of India, Pakistan, indeed the whole region during these incredibly difficult times. In the meantime, we’ll continue to apply stringent testing and quarantine measures for all passengers arriving in Canada,” she said. India recorded the highest one-day tally of new COVID-19 cases in the world with more than 314,000 new infections reported on Thursday.

The country, which is the second-most populous in the world, also reported 2,104 new deaths related to the virus, which is its highest in a 24-hour period. In total, India has had more than 15.9 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began – the second-highest amount after the United States. The mounting cases have resulted in acute shortages of beds and medicine and low oxygen supply in a large number of hospitals, India’s health ministry said.

In response, the government has been rushing oxygen tankers to replenish hospital supplies. There are also reports of overwhelmed crematoriums and morgues with bodies piling up outside on sidewalks. There were 35 flights from India with at least one COVID-19 case on board that arrived in Canada in the last two weeks, according to the government.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier Thursday, Premier Doug Ford and Premier Francois Legault called on the federal government to reduce the number of international flights arriving in Canada and impose greater restrictions at the Canada-U.S. land border. “We are concerned about the growing number of cases attributed to variants, which arrived in Canada through international travel. We are writing to you to request that the federal government take further measures to limit the spread of the virus,” the letter reads.

Of the variants of concern, Canada is reporting 73,150 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first discovered in the U.K., 2,487 cases of the P.1 variant, first linked to Brazil, and 435 cases of the B.1.351 variant, associated with South Africa. On Wednesday, Quebec reported the first case of the B.1.617 variant, which was first identified in India and is considered at the moment a variant of interest. Federal MPs also showed unanimous support on Thursday for a Bloc Quebecois motion to have the government immediately suspend non-essential passenger flights from countries with high rates of COVID-19 variants.

Earlier in the day, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole held a press conference echoing the same demand. “Throughout April, dozens of COVID-positive flights have been landing in Canada. With them, they brought the risk of new variants, including the double mutated variant that is currently overwhelming India’s health-care system,” O’Toole said. “We have a small window of opportunity to act, and we must move now.”

On Wednesday, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said country-specific travel restrictions “can only go so far” when it comes to preventing the spread of highly contagious variants. “The virus globally is undergoing evolution and there are many different mutations and changes in the virus, particularly in countries that have a lot of cases,” she said during a press conference Wednesday. “Given that situation, a strategy for Canada was to add more layers of protections for every country.”

Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said it’s next to impossible to stop the spread of the virus through border restrictions alone. “Borders are artificial, you would need to think of natural barriers like oceans or mountains, but here in Canada we have flights coming in, we also have the land border so it’s not easy, but with the measures we’ve taken at the border like testing, we are able to monitor and detect the emergency of variants,” he said.

He also said Canadians abroad “have the right to come home” but reinforced public health’s recommendation to avoid non-essential international travel. Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada dropped its recommendation for additional screening measures for travellers arriving in Canada from Brazil because there wasn’t clear evidence that additional questioning protocols were adding “operational value” and the P.1 variant associated with Brazil was already on the rise in Western Canada.

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Kelley Lee, the Canada Research Chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University and member of Pandemics & Borders, an international research group providing data on border control measures, says country-specific travel bans or restrictions shouldn’t be the only mechanisms being considered to mitigate variant spread. “Everyone is panicking over India and saying ‘oh, we got to stop the flights from India,’ and a month ago it was Brazil, and before that in Canada we closed to Mexico and a few Caribbean countries.

That is a poor way of looking at it for a number of reasons, because the variants are out there, people are travelling continuously, passing through different airports,” she said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “That variant is not just in India now, it could be anywhere.” She said instead, Canada should look at a package of measures, including “gold standard” testing and quarantining, and applying that package to everyone that comes in, not just to those by air.

“Variants don’t care if you’re travelling for essential or non-essential reasons, they are just moving. So I would say you first have to be very, very stringent about who is not subject to these kind of measures and vaccinate them – flight crews, crews on ships, truck drivers, people that couldn’t do their jobs if they had to quarantine every time they crossed the border.” The Manitoba government and the state of North Dakota are working together on a joint initiative to help essential workers get vaccinated as they cross back and forth from the two regions on a regular basis.

Lee said there are two options to improve Canada’s quarantine system, to either increase the mandatory hotel stay to 14-days in line with countries like Australia and New Zealand or to use community surveillance methods to allow people to quarantine at home or another place of residence.

“Other countries have used, for example, ankle bracelets to ensure people remain where they should be to keep themselves and others safe,” she said.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press.