Friday, April 23, 2021

India flight ban arrived just hours after Health Canada implied it was pointless

Health Canada had a hell of a month last week. Its top docs and the minister responsible tried their best, over and over, to pooh-pooh any emergency measures to prevent or at least slow the B.1.617 COVID-19 variant’s arrival on Canadian shores from India, where cases are soaring. Not for the first time over the past year, they looked foolish. (As it turns out, the variant has already been here for weeks.)

In recent weeks there have been 13 flights from Delhi to Toronto, and seven to Vancouver. Pretty much all of them wound up on the federal government’s list of “international flights with confirmed COVID-19 cases.”  On Wednesday, British Columbia announced it had found 39 cases of the strain as of April 4, but hadn’t bothered flagging them. (B.1.617 is not yet listed as a “variant of concern” on Health Canada’s daily epidemiological report.) Also on Wednesday, Quebec announced it had found its first case.

And then, late on Thursday, the government went ahead and banned flights from India and Pakistan. At this point, “foolish” doesn’t even begin to cover it. On Friday, Public Health Ontario announced it had detected 36 cases of the strain “in the last few days. At this point, “foolish” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Let’s consider the arguments. “The challenge with country-by-country approaches is COVID spreads in ways that we can see, and ways that we can’t,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told the Toronto Sun. “The safest thing for Canadians is to have a universal approach that requires scrutiny at the border.

If the “scrutiny” in question were compellingly designed and proven effective, that might be true. It is neither, so it isn’t: Obviously a flight from India is orders of magnitude more risky than one from Taiwan, which is nearly COVID-free. Without banning flights entirely, we could have implemented a proper 14-day enforced quarantine weeks ago to fend off this not-yet-understood new variant, and it might have made a difference. But that has not been the Canadian way.

“(On) India we’ll be doing further analysis,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said on Wednesday, “We’ll be doing that risk assessment again and using the data we have now collected at the border to inform our next steps.”

Clearly, time was not of the essence.

On Thursday Dr. Howard Njoo, Tam’s deputy, wondered aloud at the point of it all. “It’s nearly impossible to stop viruses from spreading because borders are artificial things,” he told reporters, hours before the flight ban came down. “If you have a natural barrier like mountains or an ocean it’s different, but in Canada, with the land border, it’s easy.”

23/04/21 Chris Selley/National Post

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