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Stopping all Canada-China flights won’t stop spread of coronavirus — Here’s why

Novel coronavirus: Travel bans, quarantines rise amid global outbreak
WATCH: Travel bans, quarantines rise amid global coronavirus outbreak

With so much still unknown about a new virus multiplying in China, many countries are closing the curtains on Chinese travellers. But experts are raising doubts about whether that will actually help.

“People will find a way around. You can say, ‘Stop all direct flights,’ but that doesn’t stop all travel,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, told Global News.

“If someone wants to get from Point A to Point B, they will find a way to do that. If there’s not a direct route, there will be alternative routes. This is just human nature.”

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This week, Air Canada extended a suspension of its flights between Canada and the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai until March 27. The airline first halted flights to the cities after the federal government issued a travel advisory in late January, urging Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel to mainland China because of the viral COVID-19 outbreak. The same recommendations have been in place for weeks.

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Dozens of other nations have implemented travel-related measures since the outbreak began in late December, including outright bans.

Canada, at this point, has not taken that route. The advisory currently in place is not a ban.

“The decision to travel is your choice, and you are responsible for your personal safety abroad,” it reads.

So while Air Canada has chosen to suspend its service to China, it’s not a requirement. It’s left airlines that offer service between Canada and China with a choice — to fly or to not fly.

Coronavirus outbreak: WHO says cases with no China travel history could be the ‘spark that becomes a bigger fire’
Coronavirus outbreak: WHO says cases with no China travel history could be the ‘spark that becomes a bigger fire’

As of Feb. 14, a number of international airlines are still operating between Canada and China throughout February, March and April. Hainan Airlines offered non-stop flights between Toronto and Beijing. China Eastern offered some non-stop trips between Toronto or Vancouver and Shanghai. And Air China had some non-stop flights between Vancouver and Beijing available.

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Travel bans and quarantines are an age-old answer to stop the spread of the disease, but it’s exactly what the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised against since the outbreak began. The agency’s general-director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the bans unnecessary and said they fan fear and stigma “with little public health benefit.”

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“This is still and foremost an emergency for China,” he said.

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Of the more than 64,000 cases, 99 per cent are in China. Of the 1,384 deaths, all but two are inside China.

Banning travel from an affected country is an oversimplified response to a complex situation, said Bogoch, and it “can do more harm than good.”

Bogoch pointed to the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, which became a pandemic. Many countries banned travel from North America, its believed country of origin, despite the WHO saying there was “no rationale” for it.

Novel coronavirus outbreak: Travel restrictions rise with death outside China
Novel coronavirus outbreak: Travel restrictions rise with death outside China

“At best, it slowed down the spread of infection by two to four weeks. It certainly did not prevent this from turning into an epidemic,” Bogoch said.

The measures also come with huge economic consequences.

One study found that the travel restrictions related to H1N1 contributed to a 40 per cent decline in air travel to and from Mexico but did relatively little to stave off the disease.

While simply stopping flights may, by definition, have the ability to reduce new cases to certain regions, it’s not foolproof, said Jason Kindrachuk, a professor of emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.

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“While there is sustained human-to-human transmission in China, we have not seen this outside of the region. What this suggests is that self-monitoring by passengers coming from these regions has worked quite well,” he said.

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“But [travel bans] can also increase the isolation of regions that drastically need help.”

During the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, travel bans actually made stopping the outbreak more difficult. The closed borders pinched a country already ill-equipped to cope with a rapidly spreading disease by “compromising connectivity to the region, mobilization of resources to the affected area and sustained response operations,” according to one study.

“The long-term ramifications of travel bans on both relations and economic tolls may outweigh any potential benefit from a travel ban,” Kindrachuk said. “Now, it’s also a question of how extensive a ban would be needed to even capture all potential cases, considering that there are increasing numbers across Asia at this point.”

Is it safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?
Is it safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

With no Canadian travel ban in place and other airlines offering non-stop flights, why would Air Canada opt to keep China-bound flights grounded until March?

Optics play a huge role, Bogoch believes.

“Obviously, to the general public, the optics are favourable when we say we’re not having any more travel to that particular area,” he said.

“People say, ‘Well, this epidemic is existing on the other side of the world. If we simply stop air travel to that part of the world, we won’t import cases.’ It’s just not that simple.”

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READ MORE: U.S. airlines extend China flight cancellations into late April over COVID-19

But the decision by Air Canada — or any of the dozens of international airlines that have chosen to suspend or reduce service to Beijing, Shanghai and, in some cases, Hong Kong — isn’t an overreaction to Ross Aimer, a former pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. Aimer said passenger demand to visit the countries should be considered, as it’s likely reduced dramatically.

“There are considerations for their own crew’s safety as well,” he said. “That’s become a big issue.”

Ultimately, the efforts to stop the spread lie at the heart of the outbreak, Bogoch said.

“And that’s what happening right now,” he said. “There are significant resources being poured into China and being utilized by China to essentially prevent further transmission of this virus.”

— With files from Reuters