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Few people would consider airports as arenas for power plays between nations.
But the reality is that airlines and border control agents are often a country’s first line of defense. Airports can be the place where foreign policy decisions are put to the test and where, according to Kenyan political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, “the realities of privilege and race in travel are laid bare.”
I discovered this recently during my return trip to Canada from an Omicron related red list country. In retrospect, the trip was a cross between a scene from The 2004 film by Steven Spielberg The terminal and a chapter from Nyabola’s book, traveling as a black.
Both works are based on the intersections between race, gender, and class in international travel.
Policy aimed only at African countries
My personal experience involves the Canadian government’s travel policy, designed to address the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which targeted several African countries. It entered into force on November 26, 2021 and, by December 18, 2021, was deemed to have “served its purpose and is no longer neededsince Omicron was present in countries all over the world.
Nonetheless, it is still worth analyzing the policy because such measures do not occur in a vacuum: they reflect historical precedents and shape future policies. It is necessary to examine whether the policy ever truly served the interests of Canadian citizens.
I was in Nigeria on November 26, 2021, when the Canadian government “improved” its border measures to “reduce the risk of importation and transmission of COVID-19 and its variants.”
This was done by establishing additional requirements for Canadian citizens and permanent residents returning from red-listed countries, defined as countries that are at particularly high risk of contracting new and emerging strains of COVID-19. The only countries on the list were African, although other nations had highest numbers of COVID-19 and the variant was present in those nations at the time.
Dr. Theresa Tam, director of public health for Canada, justified the ban on African countries based on low vaccine coverage rates and uncertainty of “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.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has repeatedly failed to provide data to support policy.
An editorial published in the medical journal the lancet established that the Omicron variant was identified as a result of complex sequencing work carried out in South Africa when some of the most technologically advanced Western countries were unable to perform the same required genome sequencing tests. Furthermore, he stressed that unless borders are sealed to travelers from all nations, targeted 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 being placed in a designated quarantine facility upon arrival in Canada, regardless of vaccination status or previous test results.
Canada also added an unusual requirement for a valid negative test from a third country within 72 hours of departure to Canada. This measure has received the most criticism from many Canadians, scientists and experts. It meant additional expense and inconvenience for Canadian travelers, including having to travel through insecure and conflictive environments.
Tug of war between airlines, authorities
Despite having been tested in Nigeria, I decided to get tested from a third country in the UK.
I assumed PHAC would have no problem with testing from a non-African lab. However, the COVID-19 testing centers at Heathrow Airport are not located within the airport itself, but require entry into the UK.
This became a problem, as the country no longer allowed entry to non-residents traveling from red-listed countries. My attempts to get a COVID-19 test turned into a tug-of-war between British Airways and the UK Border Agency. There was a lot of confusion about what the rules were and how to humanely enforce them. I was initially denied entry which was devastating after over six hours of flying with a young child.
Ironically, neither my full vaccination status nor multiple negative tests mattered to PHAC upon arrival at Toronto Pearson International Airport. I was tested at the airport and taken to a designated quarantine center.
The substandard conditions at these facilities, especially the long wait times for test results and clearance to leave the PHAC, have received much attention. media coverage.
More testing centers needed above all
How exactly did any of these measures accomplish their purported purpose? Canadian COVID-19 testing centers were behind schedule because the focus was on requiring hundreds of travelers to retest and self-quarantine, rather than taking more proactive internal steps to ensure Canadians had easy access to testing centers.
Although not all African countries were included in the red list, Dr Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief medical officer for health, admitted that factors other than science influence cabinet decisions.
“We work… to put together the best science-based advice we can. Decision-makers take that into account, but we recognize that there are other considerations at play as well, beyond the strictly technical public health advice we may be giving to ministers.”
The African travel bans highlight underlying issues in global justice, from vaccine diplomacy and intellectual property barriers to systemic refusal to recognize African skills and agency.
It clearly boils down to what the PHAC agent at Pearson told me: “It’s not your test result that matters, it’s where you’ve been.”
The Canadian News
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