As the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant begins to invade cities around the world, Canada’s expanded travel restrictions have focused on countries on one continent: Africa.
But according to health experts, the choice to single out African countries makes no sense – and could in fact endanger the global fight against COVID-19.
“For travel restrictions to work, they have to be proportional, they have to be fair, and there has to be a good reason for that… it’s really not right at all,” said Kerry Bowman, bioethicist at the University. from Toronto, speaking to Global News from Al Ghaydah, Yemen.
“It doesn’t build confidence and really pits low-income countries against high-income countries. “
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Canada imposed its latest round of travel restrictions on November 26 in response to concerns over the newly discovered Omicron variant. The government has banned travelers from seven African countries: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
Days later, as cases were discovered in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Hong Kong, among others, Canada expanded its travel restrictions to include three other countries: Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.
Foreign nationals who have visited these countries in the past two weeks will not be able to enter Canada. Canadians and permanent residents who have passed through these countries in the past two weeks will have to self-quarantine, undergo tests at the airport and wait for their test results before being released from quarantine, according to the Minister of Health. Health Jean-Yves Duclos.
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The federal government upheld its decision on Tuesday. Dr Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, said the decision to limit travel restrictions to 10 African countries was based on several “criteria”.
“There may be some uncertainty in the overall epidemiological situation of countries and their ability to detect and respond (to the variant),” Tam said.
“These countries also have very low immunization coverage. “
She added that the COVID-19 positivity rate for passengers arriving from Egypt and Nigeria has increased and that all Canadian cases reported so far “have come from Nigeria.”
Duclos echoed Tam’s comments, stating that community transmission in the 10 countries “is of concern, not only to Canada, but to our international partners.”
But the experts don’t buy it.
“Scientifically, it doesn’t make sense to impose restrictions only on Africa… because of Omicron,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“But then, on the other hand … governments want to be seen to be doing something when this happens.”
The WHO has warned that the global risk of Omicron is “very high”, with early evidence suggesting it may be more contagious than other worrying variants. The variant has a number of mutations in two key areas of the virus spike protein, according to Tam, including areas that could increase transmissibility and areas that could impact the immunity offered by vaccines. .
Still, Bowman warned that it was “very, very destructive” to “shut down” South Africa with restrictions – rather than praise them – after undertaking the “complex” sequencing work that led to the identification of the variant.
“It really could be a major deterrent,” Bowman said.
“I think a lot of it is political, for the public. In addition, low-income countries are of less concern than high-income countries from an economic perspective. So I’m assuming that too.
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Bowman was not alone in his hypothesis.
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“It’s important to remember that governments make decisions because they have to appeal to voters,” Evans said.
“While some voters may be very motivated by a big picture, sometimes people only worry about themselves.”
Experts fear the decision to hit these 10 African countries with travel restrictions will also hurt the much-needed vaccine rollout in the regions. The WHO expressed the same fears during a briefing on Wednesday, reiterating that it does not support the travel bans at this time.
“All the economies of these countries depend… on a fair degree of international trade. Lots of fruits and vegetables come from South Africa to Canada, ”said Evans.
“If we nominally prevent travel from these jurisdictions to Canada to keep people who might be infected from entering, we could have an impact on these particular things. And then the problem you have is that those savings are suffering.
This economic blow, Evans warned, could have an impact on vaccine deployment.
“This ability to deploy the vaccine… is going to be affected by all kinds of unintended consequences due to the travel bans. “
Global vaccine deployment essential: experts
Ensuring a smooth global vaccine rollout is the only way the world can truly get past the COVID-19 pandemic – and it’s a far bigger issue than the implementation of travel restrictions and enforcement. distribution of booster doses, said Evans and Bowman.
“When we have areas of the world with low vaccination rates, this is where the virus is going to continue to have continuous transmission, ongoing infections,” Evans said.
“The real solution… is that we need to roll out vaccines globally, and we need to increase vaccinations globally to levels that we are seeing in parts of the developed world. “
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This is because the virus “takes advantage of widespread infections, which causes viral replication, which allows it to mutate,” according to Evans.
These mutations can sometimes be advantageous for the virus, for example, by making it more transmissible, or by teaching it to evade vaccines, according to several public health experts. The more COVID-19 spreads, the more replication occurs – and the more likely it is that a serious mutation will set in.
Until regions of the world that have little access to vaccines are able to immunize their populations, variants will continue to arise, according to Bowman.
“These environments are becoming factories of absolute variants, and we have done so little about it,” Bowman said.
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Bowman, who worked in Yemen, said he had seen firsthand the impact of vaccine inequity.
“I have seen unvaccinated health care workers. I’ve seen people who need oxygen and don’t get it, in very poor countries, and they haven’t received the vaccine. These people are going to die, ”he said.
“The death rate from this is going to be phenomenal. “
To date, there have been over 263 million cases worldwide. In total, more than 5 million people have died, according to the WHO.
The government has sent doses to low-income countries around the world through the COVAX vaccine sharing initiative – which was reiterated by the Minister of Health on Wednesday – but Bowman said those measures did not go far enough.
“South Africa itself may have a lot of vaccines right now, but sub-Saharan Africa has absolutely none. And Canada has been relentlessly focused on child booster and immunization, ”Bowman said.
“The greatest threat to all of us as Canadians has always been the international pandemic situation, and we have done next to nothing about it. “
When the dust settles, Bowman added, history will be the final judge.
“When this terrible pandemic ends and the books are written and the analysis really begins,” he said, “Canada has to live with this legacy that we have made very, very, very little of a global perspective at the height of this crisis. “
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