Travel Tips

I was caught up in Canada’s harsh and unscientific African travel ban

I was caught up in Canada's harsh and unscientific African travel ban
Written by Publishing Team

Few would consider airports as arenas for the play of power between nations.

But the reality is that airlines and border control agents are often the country’s first line of defense. Airports can be where foreign policy decisions are subject to experiments and where, according to Kenyan political analyst Nangala Nyabula, “the realities of privilege and race in travel are revealed”.

I recently discovered this while traveling to Canada from a red list country associated with Omicron. In the past, the journey was a cross between a scene from Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie station And a chapter from the Book of Neabula, Traveling while traveling black.

Both jobs draw on the intersections of race, gender, and class in international travel.

The policy targets only African countries

My personal experience includes the Canadian government’s travel policy – designed to deal with the COVID-19 variant Omicron – that has targeted several African countries. It came into effect on November 26, 2021, and by December 18, 2021 it was deemed to have “served its purpose and is no longer necessary” given that Omicron was present in countries around the world.

However, politics is still worth analyzing because such actions do not occur in a vacuum – they reflect historical precedents and shape future policies. There is a need to examine whether the policy really serves the interests of Canadian citizens.

I was in Nigeria on November 26, 2021, when the Canadian government “strengthened its border measures” to “reduce the risks of importing and transmitting COVID-19 and its variants”.

This was done by placing additional requirements on Canadian citizens and permanent residents returning from Red List countries, which have been defined as having a particularly high risk of new and emerging strains of COVID-19. The only countries on the list were African, although other countries had higher numbers of COVID-19 and the alternative was in those countries at the time.

A black woman wearing a mask gets a COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse.
A Nigerian civil servant receives a vaccine against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Abuja, Nigeria, in December 2021.
(AP Photo/Gbemiga Olamikan)

dubious claim

Dr Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, justified the ban on African countries on the basis of low vaccine coverage rates and uncertainty about their “ability to detect and respond.” [to the variant]. This claim and other African travel bans have been criticized for not being based on scientific evidence.

Public Health Canada (PHAC) has repeatedly failed to provide data to support policy.

Editorial published in the medical journal scalpel, the Omicron variant has been shown to have been identified as a result of complex sequencing work undertaken in South Africa when some of the most technologically advanced Western countries were unable to perform the same required genome sequencing tests. Furthermore, I highlighted that unless borders are closed for travelers from all countries, selective travel bans do not work.

On November 30, 2021, Canada added Nigeria to the Red List. Additional measures required for travelers included enhanced testing, screening, and placement in a designated quarantine facility upon arrival in Canada – regardless of vaccination status or previous test results.

Canada also added an unusual requirement to have a negative test valid from a third country within 72 hours of departure to Canada. This procedure has received the most criticism from many Canadians, scholars, and experts. It meant additional expenses and inconveniences for Canadian travelers, including having to travel through unsafe and conflict-ridden environments.

A woman in a red jacket gets a PCR test from a nurse wearing personal protective equipment.  The sign reading test is over their heads.
A passenger arriving at Pearson International Airport is subject to a COVID-19 test. The writer recounts her chaotic experience traveling to Toronto from Nigeria during the questionable African travel ban imposed by Ottawa.
The Canadian Press / Nathan Dennett

The tug of war between airlines and authorities

Although I took the test in Nigeria, I decided to take my third country test in the UK.

I assumed PHAC would not have problems with a non-African lab test. However, the COVID-19 testing centers at Heathrow are not within the airport itself, but require entry into the UK

This has become a problem, as the state no longer allows entry to non-residents traveling from red-listed countries. My attempts to get a COVID-19 test became a tug of war between British Airways and the British Border Agency. There has been a lot of confusion about what the rules are and how to apply them humanely. Initially denied entry, it was devastating after more than six hours of flying with a young child.

Ironically, neither my entire vaccination status nor multiple negative tests were of significance to the PHC upon my arrival at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. I was tested at the airport and taken to the designated quarantine facility.

Substandard conditions in these facilities—particularly the long waiting times for test results and for permission to leave the PHC—received a lot of media coverage.

A person in silhouette is shown closing the hotel room window blinds.
People are quarantined at a hotel near Vancouver Airport.
(Canadian Press / Daryl Dick)

More testing centers are needed than anything else

How exactly did any of these actions serve their supposed purpose? Canadian COVID-19 testing centers were backlogged because the focus was on requiring hundreds of travelers to be retested and quarantined, rather than more proactive local measures to ensure easy access for Canadians to testing centers.

Although not all African countries were placed on the red list, Dr Howard Ngo, Canada’s deputy chief medical officer for Health, acknowledged factors other than science influencing Cabinet decisions.

He said:

“We are working… to compile the best advice we can based on the science. Decision makers take that into account but we recognize that there are other considerations at play as well, beyond just the kind of rigorous public health technical advice we might give to ministers.”

The African travel ban highlights core issues in global justice, from vaccine diplomacy and intellectual property barriers to the systematic refusal to recognize African competencies and agency.

It all boils down to what my primary care agent at Pearson told me: “What matters is not your test result, but where you have been.”

About the author

Publishing Team

Leave a Comment