Company asks Harper to lift Ebola visa ban

TORONTO – A multinational mining company has urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reverse the government’s decision to restrict entry to Canada from Ebola-affected countries.

ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steel and mining company, wrote to the prime minister on Tuesday to suggest his government’s approach to protecting Canada from Ebola would make fighting the disease more difficult.

“We respect your concerns and the need to protect Canada from Ebola, but the only solution is to combat this disease within West Africa and travel restrictions are slowing the response and making this harder,” said the letter from Bill Scotting, ArcelorMittal’s chief executive for mining.

“We hope you can find a way of meeting both Canada’s needs whilst helping the international community truly combat the disease at source.”

READ MORE: WHO asks Canada to explain Ebola travel limits

Alan Knight, the company’s general manager for corporate responsibility, said in an interview that ArcelorMittal had received confirmation of receipt of the letter but had not had a response from the prime minister’s office.

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The federal government announced last week it was suspending the issuance of new visas to residents and citizens of countries with widespread Ebola transmission, and was also halting work on residency applications from those countries. Three countries currently meet this definition: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The move contravenes the International Health Regulations which stipulate that in infectious disease outbreaks, countries should not impose trade or travel sanctions against affected countries beyond what the WHO has recommended.

The WHO has repeatedly urged countries not to close their doors to people from the affected countries, saying to do so would be counterproductive and might actually increase the risk of international spread of the disease.

READ MORE: How does Ebola spread? 5 things you need to know

Under the International Health Regulations, countries which take measures that are stronger than those approved by the WHO must present the global health agency with the scientific and public health rationale for their actions. And the WHO has asked Canada to lay out its justification for taking this action.

Canada helped to revise the IHR, as the treaty is called, after the 2003 SARS outbreak. The goal of the document is to encourage countries to report disease outbreaks that could threaten other states by removing the economic disincentives that would make countries avoid transparency. By signing the treaty, countries agree not to penalize nations that are experiencing disease outbreaks by levelling trade or travel sanctions against them.

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ArcelorMittal employs more than 10,000 people in Canada; in Liberia, it employs 4,000 people.

The company and others that do business in the three West African countries engulfed in the Ebola outbreak have formed a group that calls itself the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group; the corporations are helping in the effort to contain the Ebola outbreak.

The companies are providing operational support for some of the aid organizations working on the Ebola response. They are also playing an advocacy role, calling for better co-ordination among the various parties involved in the response.

Knight, who is chairing the mobilization group, said the views in the letter to Prime Minister Harper come from ArcelorMittal, but are shared by others in the group.

In an interview from Washington, D.C., Knight said moves like the one Canada has made are “making it harder and harder for those who are fighting the disease to actually get people in and out of the countries.”

READ MORE: Australia bans entry visas for people from Ebola-hit countries

The letter from Scotting explains:

“Our workers and the very needed health workers to combat the outbreak are increasingly scared to travel to the region for fear of being quarantined and stigmatized by their families and communities upon their return home,” he said.

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“We respect your concerns and need to protect Canada from Ebola, but the only solution is to combat this disease within West Africa and travel restrictions are slowing the response and making this harder.”

NDP MP Helen Laverdiere, the party’s international development critic, criticized the decision Thursday in Question Period in the House of Commons.

“Why is the Canadian government breaking the very rules it asked for?” she asked, referring to the fact that Canada opposed travel limits when Toronto was the subject of a WHO travel advisory during the SARS outbreak.

Travel advisories, a tool which the WHO hasn’t used since, urged people to postpone unnecessary travel to SARS-affected locations. It is estimated that Toronto’s tourism sector lost $2 billion during SARS because of the precipitous drop in travel to the city.

Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander defended the government’s move in the Commons. He denied that there was a travel ban, describing the new policy as “discouraging” people from the affected countries from coming to Canada.

Alexander insisted essential travel from the affected countries will continue. Though he didn’t define what that means, the government has said Canadians returning from those countries will be allowed to travel. And Alexander’s department has said that the minister retains the discretion to approve some travel, if it is deemed to be in Canada’s interest.

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That may mean business travel, judging from Alexander’s comments in Parliament. “Essential travel will continue. Travel with an economic justification will continue, and it is continuing.”

The World Health Organization says 13,042 people have contracted Ebola in this outbreak and 4,818 have died from the disease.

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