Coronavirus ‘travel bubble’ idea gains steam but wouldn’t work for Canada, U.S.: expert

Click to play video: 'A tale of two neighbours: Comparing U.S. coronavirus response to Canada’s'
A tale of two neighbours: Comparing U.S. coronavirus response to Canada’s
WATCH: Despite sharing a border, the U.S. has 22 times the number of COVID-19 cases that Canada has – Apr 2, 2020

As provinces and countries begin to look towards easing coronavirus restrictions, some are taking an approach reminiscent of school days gone by: pick a best friend and stick with them.

The concept of “travel bubbles” appears to be gaining traction, with New Brunswick authorizing households to pick one other household with whom to socialize, and New Zealand and Australia reportedly weighing allowing their citizens to travel only between the two friendly countries.

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READ MORE: U.S., other countries begin to slowly ease COVID-19 restrictions

Officials around the world have suggested basically any form of non-essential international travel is unlikely until at least the end of the year.

The question is how to inch those borders open slowly, and while Canada and the U.S. share closer ties than Australia and New Zealand, one infectious disease expert is warning against reopening the border with the U.S. in a similar manner.

“The U.S. has the biggest epidemic in the world right now. It’s singular — no country has more cases, no country is less adherent to the only established method of interdicting cases, which is social distancing,” said Amir Attaran, a professor of law and epidemiology at the University of Ottawa.

“In terms of who is the greatest global danger in the world right now for COVID, it’s indisputably the Americans.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: United States surpasses Italy for most COVID-19 deaths'
Coronavirus outbreak: United States surpasses Italy for most COVID-19 deaths

The U.S. has a population roughly 10 times that of Canada: 330 million compared to 38 million.

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Because of this, that proportion is often used as the basis for grounding comparisons between the two countries, and coronavirus data is no different.

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In Canada, there are 46,884 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 2,560 deaths.

If the ratio of cases and deaths between Canada and the U.S. were even, Americans would have roughly half a million cases and somewhere in the ballpark of 25,600 deaths — but that’s not the case.

There are more than 988,197 cases in the U.S. and 56,259 deaths, according to the tally maintained by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

That’s 22 times higher than the situation in Canada and far above the normal baseline for comparison.

There are a lot of factors being cited by experts in media reports for why those numbers are so high — everything from lack of access to health care to unequal access to social services, fewer physical-distancing measures and a lack of personal protective equipment and ventilators.

All raise serious questions about the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis and whether the American response to this and any subsequent waves of the pandemic would put Canadians at risk if the border was reopened to more travellers from the U.S.

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Click to play video: 'Personal insight from Canadian living at epicentre of pandemic in the United States'
Personal insight from Canadian living at epicentre of pandemic in the United States

Health Minister Patty Hajdu and chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam were both asked about the prospect of reopening the border with the U.S. by journalists on Monday.

Hajdu said a key point of concern will have to be “how we manage those re-entries so that we can continue to prevent new numbers of cases from arising from countries that perhaps don’t have a very good handle on what’s going on in their country from an infectious perspective or that maybe have outbreaks that will create a health and safety concern for Canada.”

Tam said the focus needs to be on controlling Canadian cases first.

READ MORE: ‘Incomplete’ data for Canada hurts ability to model pandemic, scientists say

But Attaran said Canadian data is still not good enough to be able to inform a decision on when it will be safe to reopen that border, and as a result, the government will likely either keep restrictions in place too long or cave to eventual U.S. pressure to lift the border lockdown.

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“It is utterly impossible to walk the line between those two errors if you don’t have the data showing where the line is,” he said. “The fact that we’re not getting the data makes us ultimately more likely to cave to U.S. pressure.”

The quality of Canadian coronavirus data has been criticized repeatedly in recent weeks over concerns raised by public health experts and academics that it is “incomplete.”

It isn’t separated geographically. It doesn’t distinguish date of first symptoms from lab testing date to the date a case was reported to health authorities — all of which can differ by weeks.

“I think we’re almost no better off modelling Canadian populations here in Canada than we would be if we were sitting with an internet connection literally anywhere in the world looking at publicly available data,” said Caroline Colijn, an infectious disease modeller and math professor at Simon Fraser University.

She told Global News the data is a key part of shaping decisions on everything from when physical distancing can be relaxed to when the economy can restart.

“Building up that understanding and then introducing an appropriate pandemic plan and actually implementing that plan and having data be part of that, I think that could be incredibly valuable,” Colijn said.

Attaran said without that data, the government will likely have a tough time pushing back at U.S. pressure to agree to reopen the border.

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“The mistake they’re making is they’re trying to manage Canada’s future direction politically and not scientifically,” he said.

“And if you are managing politically, when the political pressure is brought to bear — because of the United States making decisions that are probably very unwise — you will likely, too, make an unwise decision in America’s wake.”

— With a file from Global News’ Beatrice Britneff

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