It was a rather inauspicious start for Canada’s new phase of international flight restrictions yesterday as Canada’s largest province announced they’d recorded 36 cases of the new coronavirus variant that these restrictions are ostensibly aimed at keeping out.
The B.1.617 variant, as it’s now known, is suspected of fueling the surge of COVID-19 infections in India over the last month. Given that we’ve had numerous positive cases on flights from India to Canada through the month of April, it should really come as no big surprise that we’re starting to find cases here.
The question is why we waited so long to respond.
In fact, much of Canada’s current third wave is being driven by variants that we also failed to keep out. The B.1.1.7 variant, which prompted Canada to pause flights from the U.K. in December, has become dominant in much of Canada. The P.1 variant, which had prompted some “enhanced screening” for travellers from Brazil (which has since ended), has gained a foothold in some parts of the country, most notably in B.C.
We have been very slow to react in every case and very underwhelming in our responses. Furthermore, these failures seem to be met with more or less a collective shrug. Canada’s shaky vaccine rollout has finally begun to pick up steam and Canadians would have a right to be furious if our leaders allow that to be undermined.
Imagine a scenario where we finally vaccinate in sufficient enough numbers to build up a degree of herd immunity, thus allowing a return to some degree of normalcy. How would we respond if a variant emerged that truly was resistant to both the vaccines and immunity from previous infections?
There’s every reason to believe that the same companies who have developed these remarkable vaccines will be able to tailor those vaccines to create boosters for any potential problematic new variants. But it doesn’t speak well of Canada’s leadership that the success of our pandemic response hinges almost entirely on what companies like Pfizer can produce and send to us.
We need to prepare for the likelihood that even as we (hopefully) can get back to normal, there may still be COVID-19 hotspots globally. We may end up with travel “bubbles” between countries that have achieved similar vaccination success, and perhaps we can even get to a point where vaccinated travellers returning from certain destinations would not need to quarantine at all.
But by the same token, we need a strategy for keeping out any potential problems. The U.K., for example, eager to protect its successful vaccine rollout, has placed India on its travel “red list.” That means anyone returning to the UK from India must spend a full 10 days in quarantine in a government-approved hotel.
It would be straightforward enough for Canada to take a similar approach, since we already have a hotel quarantine program in place — albeit one that appears to be in some need of improvements.
Stricter border controls can make a difference, especially if Ottawa is prepared to be proactive with such a response (which, sadly, has not been the case thus far). But we also need to recognize that such restrictions are not infallible, even when done well. We also need a better response for the cases that get through.
This past week in the U.K., surge testing was deployed in parts of the city of Birmingham after a case of the B.1.351 variant (first discovered in South Africa) was detected. Given the concern that vaccines may be less effective about this variant, British authorities appear determined to contain it.
Compare that to the situation in this country, where we have cases — community spread in most cases — of pretty much all of the variants of concern. With the sheer number of cases we’re dealing with at the moment, we lack the available resources to dedicate to such an aggressive or concentrated response. And so we are left basically hoping for the best.
In feels in many ways like we haven’t learnt the lessons from the mistakes we made at the outset of this pandemic. Mediocrity then has led to mediocrity now. Canadians deserve better.