Experts are saying that Canada’s new travel bans on India and Pakistan won’t be an effective long-term measure against the spread of COVID-19, and that it will just delay more arrivals of a potentially more infectious “double-mutant” variant in the country.
The bans come as cases of the novel coronavirus continue skyrocketing in trajectory in India, where the B.1.617 variant was first detected.
The country has for three consecutive days posted the world’s highest number of new infections, with over 346,000 cases of COVID-19 detected on Saturday alone.
In response to growing concerns over confirmed cases of the B.1.617 variant in both British Columbia and Quebec, the federal government announced a new 30-day ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan Thursday.
On Friday, Ontario also became the third province to identify new cases of the new variant.
While the variant has not officially been declared a “variant of concern” by the Public Health Agency of Canada, health officials said that they were treating it as a “variant of interest” and were closely monitoring.
According to Dr. Farah Shroff, a public health educator at the University of British Columbia, the federal government’s decision to ban travel from such high-risk countries will only serve to “post-pone” the spread of new variants and COVID-19 infections for a while.
Shroff pointed to the arrival of variants of concern like the B.1.1.7, first found in the U.K.
Despite Canada’s previous banning of flights from the United Kingdom, the variant ultimately found its way into the country — spreading to a total of 75,413 cases in Canada to date.
“Well, India right now is a raging COVID storm, it’s gone on a bit of a roller coaster … so will this really help? Did it help when we closed the borders? We heard about the U.K. variant and we close the borders to the U.K., and did the U.K. variant show up here?” asked Shroff.
Experts have since pointed to loopholes in the government’s travel restrictions, saying that travel bans can be circumvented by simply flying from India or Pakistan to Canada indirectly through a connecting flight.
Though the effectiveness of ultimately preventing the spread of new variants with travel bans remains under question, Shroff, who is also an incoming fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, said that there still remains some benefit to implementing such bans — especially in the case of Ontario.
“Yeah, sometimes it is really helpful because right now in Ontario, we’re at a potentially serious breaking point,” she said.
“Like the worst nightmare for COVID is to get to a point where our hospitals are overwhelmed and where our staff are pulling the bioethicists out and saying, whose life should we try to save? That’s a nightmare and in some parts of Canada — we have arrived there.”
The emergence of India’s new COVID-19 variant comes as Ontario continues to grapple with a devastating third wave of the pandemic, with record-breaking case numbers and ICU levels.
Suspending direct flights might be able to buy Ontario some breathing room before new cases of a potentially more infectious variant explode across health care units across the province.
In a previous interview with Global News, infectious diseases specialist Isaac Bogoch said that any attempts to reduce more cases coming into Canada was a positive step.
Bogoch, however, pointed at the “workarounds” around restrictions like banned flights and mandatory quarantines, begging the question of whether the federal government should take it one step further.
“There’s lots of measures that can be taken,” he said. “It’s important to ask ourselves: what’s the actual goal here if you want zero cases of COVID coming into the country?
“I’m not saying to do this, but one of the options is just stop the flights. Is that practical? Will that ever be done? I have no idea. But that’s one measure.”
Other experts have said that Canada shouldn’t need to ban international travel at all.
Ananya Banerjee, assistant professor at the school of population and global health at McGill University, told Global News earlier this week that what Canadians needed instead was universal access to testing.
“I think people are very well-equipped now to understand the importance of quarantining. So I don’t think we need to ban flights. The reality is India and Canada are very interconnected,” said Banerjee.
Shroff pointed too at other alternatives to travel bans, such as investing in more preventative measures like healthcare and food security for such high-risk and poor countries.
According to her, there were also negative consequences to implementing travel bans as well — particularly in the form of barring refugees and migrants looking for a safe haven in Canada.
“They need to come to Canada because their human rights are being abused. They need to come to Canada because there may be an LGBTQ person or their whole variety of reasons,” said Shroff.
“So migrants who need to become economic migrants and refugees in general are really hurt by travel bans — and so we need to be able to find some ways around that.”
— With files from Global News’ Saba Aziz