Andrew Neumann’s hopes of making it home for the holidays have been cast into doubt by the emergence of the omicron coronavirus variant and the swift implementation of new pandemic border restrictions around the world.
“It’s actually a particularly sensitive time,” Neumann, a Canadian living in South Africa, said in an interview on CBC’s The House that aired Saturday. His son just started university in Toronto, his first year away from home, he explained. And there are other pressing concerns.
“My wife’s father is very ill. He’s in his 80s. He’s undergoing chemotherapy…. Likewise, my mother’s 91. She’s in sort of cognitive decline. I haven’t seen her in two years,” he told host Chris Hall.
“And there’s a question mark again in my mind: Am I going to be able to say goodbye?” Neumann said.
20:23Borders tighten again
Neumann has lived in Johannesburg since 2015. He was planning to return to Canada for the holidays when new travel restrictions were put in place affecting travellers from 10 countries, mostly in southern Africa. Canadians trying to come home from those countries must now meet a series of additional testing and quarantine requirements.
Travellers must get a pre-departure molecular COVID-19 test 72 hours ahead of their departure, something Canadians are now used to, but that test must be in a third country — not any of the 10 on Canada’s list. Neumann was planning to get a test during his connection in Germany, but additional rules put in place there have made that impossible.
Canadian, German restrictions clash
A letter Neumann received from the Canadian High Commission in South Africa said German airline Lufthansa would not allow Canadians to board because of that third-country testing requirement and restrictions put in place by Germany.
Neumann’s situation closely resembles that of the Canadian junior women’s field hockey team, which has also been stuck in South Africa. The team has asked for an exemption to leave the country.
Neumann said he has been struck by what he says is the “cavalier” way the government has answered the questions of would-be travellers whose plans the restrictions have thrown into limbo.
He also says the restrictions themselves make little sense given what we now know about the spread of the omicron variant.
“It just seems so disproportionate a response to southern Africa versus the rest of the world that you have to question the motivations,” he said.
In an emailed response to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said this country’s entry requirements are meant to ensure the safety of Canadians. It said that the implementation of restrictions could disrupt travel plans but that “the decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the individual.”
“We can confirm that we are receiving reports of Canadians abroad affected by these new measures,” the statement said.
Debate over travel ban effectiveness
In a separate interview on The House, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the restrictions are being implemented to give Canada the time to assess the risk of the omicron variant and “protect the progress” the country has made against the pandemic.
“I’d acknowledge that we’re at a moment where there will be some challenges, but we put in place public health measures because of the variant of concern.”
There has been significant criticism of the travel measures put in place by Canada and other countries, with growing evidence that the new variant had been circulating in several nations before South African researchers first discovered it in late November and travel restrictions were imposed.
Part of the debate has centred on the efficacy of travel restrictions themselves, with some experts arguing they do little to stop the spread of a new variant. The president of South Africa called them “unscientific” and “discriminatory.”
Mendicino said the restrictions on the 10 countries were not politically motivated but instead based on science.
“We’re doing it because we want to protect Canadians. This is not their first go-around. We’ve done this drill before, and we want to make sure that we’re taking the right decision when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Canadians,” he said.
For one medical officer of health in Canada, the bans are of some use but should not be the focus of government.
“You know, the honest truth is that it probably would have limited impact overall, but it may help to slow the introduction of omicron,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh of Peel Region, which hosts Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
For Neumann, it’s clear the travel bans are not justified.
“When we know now that it’s also everywhere else in the world suggests that poorer countries are at a disadvantage, certainly versus Europe and Canada and the U.S.,” he said.
Despite the challenges so far, Neumann now has a flight booked for next Friday and describes himself as “somewhat hopeful” his travel plans will work out.