Can Canada’s border be reopened safely in a COVID-19 world? Here are some of the options experts are looking at

Can Canada’s border be reopened safely in a COVID-19 world? Here are some of the options experts are looking at
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our ports of entry have been restricted. Travellers from other countries have been largely barred. Many international students and migrant workers have been kept away. Loved ones have been split by the border. Even asylum seekers have been shut out.

But some say the time will come to change that.

Many experts argue Canada cannot continue to keep its doors shut to the world and wait for an effective coronavirus vaccine to be universally available, something some have speculated may not happen until 2024.

How might Canada reopen to travellers? How could it be done — incrementally and safely?

“We cannot maintain blanket border restrictions indefinitely,” says Dr. Vivek Goel, an expert on the federal COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and adviser for CanCOVID, the national research network for the coronavirus.

“That really takes us to: ‘How do we approach reopening in a safe way while maintaining all the work that’s been done within our country, so we don’t re-introduce infections?’”

Before assessing how Canada might ease its border restrictions, it’s probably worth asking the question of whether the closures have worked.

That question turns out not to be so simple.

“When you look at the science around border closures, the evidence is not very thick, because we haven’t had that experience with border closures and pandemics,” says Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law and political science at York University.

“It might very well work, but we just don’t have yet research that shows it.”

When news first emerged in January and February about a highly contagious virus emerging in China, countries including Canada followed the World Health Organization guidelines and kept the border open, relying on health screenings at entry points.

In March, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau immediately before travel restrictions were imposed, so the country could focus on controlling the spread of the virus within its border.

With some exceptions granted, non-essential travel was banned and incoming visitors have been subjected to a health questionnaire and mandatory 14-day quarantine.

A recent paper published by Hoffman and University of Ottawa professor Patrick Fafard found 18 countries had mandated quarantines as of March 18 for incoming travellers from high-risk regions such as China, while 55 countries had banned travel from high-risk regions and 37 countries had enacted total border closures.

Two months later, 14 countries had quarantines for travellers from high-risk regions, 29 countries had bans against travel from these regions and 113 countries had total border closures.

There have been a range of health measures adopted in most countries — social distancing, frequent washing hand and face mask wearing — making it almost impossible to pinpoint how well the border measures in and of themselves are working.

“We’ve seen deference to government, scientists and lawyers around what makes the most sense,” Hoffman says.

“Of course, we should be deferring to the science and the law, but border measures are based on so much more than science and law. Ultimately, actions taken at the border are political.”

Public polls have consistently shown Canadians’ overwhelming support for border restrictions especially at the land ports of entry with our nearest neighbour, the United States, where more than seven million Americans have contracted the virus and about 203,000 have died.

The Public Health Agency of Canada stands by the decision to keep Canada closed.

“Epidemiological evidence has demonstrated that further to those border measures, imported cases of COVID-19 dropped precipitously, from 3,840 confirmed and probable cases in March to an average of 175 per month over the subsequent months,” the agency’s spokesperson, Tammy Jarbeau, says in an email.

“Other countries have similarly demonstrated significant reductions in importation of cases further to imposition of quarantine measures.”

Canada’s new COVID-19 cases have predominantly been spread through community transmission, as officials appear to have a good handle on detecting and tracking imported cases, despite driving to Alaska via Canada and flights flagged for possible exposure to the virus.

“People think the travel restrictions are a panacea for this issue,” says Kelley Lee, a Simon Fraser University public health professor and the Canada research chair in global health governance.

“(They think) ‘If we just close the border, everything will be fine.’ Of course, that’s not the case. And they become complacent.”

Lee is part of an international research team that’s studying how various restrictions are working to combat COVID-19 in hopes of developing a tool to guide international border policies during a pandemic.

“We have to make people aware that border restrictions are just one set of measures. … It’s not like somehow you just shut your border and the pandemic is going to go away,” she says.

There are other possibilities — some more practical than others.

Canada could reopen its border to travellers from countries where the spread of coronavirus is under control.

The federal government could set up a travel pre-authorization system to assess the risks of COVID-19 that a visitor presents before deciding to let them in the proverbial door.

Or Canada could, theoretically, lift travel restrictions to all, but quarantine everyone who arrives in this country for 14 days in government facilities.
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