Manitobans with family members in Africa question fairness of new Canadian travel bans

WINNIPEG –

Manitobans with family members from certain countries in Africa who are now banned from entering Canada are questioning the fairness of new travel restrictions.

“It’s unfair,” said Zita Somakoko, whose brother from Nigeria planned on visiting her in Winnipeg over the Christmas holidays.

Now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to come.

People from Nigeria and nine other African countries are not being permitted entry into Canada, after the new coronavirus variant Omicron was first detected in South Africa. It’s a measure the World Health Organization has advised against and one Somakoko sees as punitive for South Africa sounding the alarm on an emerging threat.

“And now you’re putting pressure on us, because we’re doing the right thing,” said Somakoko. “You are now retaliating against us.”

While experts say a higher concentration of cases have been found Africa, Omicron has since been detected in a total of 24 countries including Canada which has seven confirmed cases that are all travel related.

The original source of Omicron is not yet known but there’s growing evidence the variant has already been spreading outside Africa.

“Now we’re starting to get a sense that it’s actually spread a little more broadly and there have been areas where cases have not been linked to travel which would suggest community transmission,” said Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba. “Right now, based on where we’re seeing cases across the globe, this is much more of a global issue than I think it is a single regional issue.”

Kindrachuk, who has worked in Africa on Ebola, calls it a complex situation.

“We need to be extremely, extremely understanding that this an area of the world that unfortunately does not have the same luxuries that we do in regards to health care or vaccine equity,” Kindrachuk said.

He said South Africa should be commended for first detecting Omicron. While Kindrachuk said travel bans could help slow the spread of the variant and buy the country time to respond, he worries about the message they send.

“If we are potentially ostracizing very specific countries but also not recognizing all those that are now identifying cases and could potentially act as seeders for more cases coming into Canada,” Kindrachuk said.

Canada has said it will soon require all international travellers, except for those arriving from departure points in the United States, to take a PCR test upon arrival and isolate until they get a negative result. Even if you’re fully vaccinated.

“It’s exhausting, honestly, the amount of restrictions,” said Jay Soriano, who was meeting family from Vancouver at Winnipeg’s James Richardson International Airport. “It’s for the good of everyone. It’s not just for the family, it’s for everyone as Canadians, too.”

But it means Soriano and his wife Melanie likely won’t visit with family from outside Canada anytime soon.

“We were supposed to go to Bali for my brother-in-law’s wedding and of course that didn’t happen so we’re very sad about that and also we were going to visit family at that time,” said Melanie Talastas-Soriano.

Soriano said travel restrictions are also affecting his uncle from the Philippines who’s currently working in South Africa.

“Because he’s coming from there, he can’t really come here,” said Soriano. “The amount of restrictions, the amount he has to go through — it’s just too much.”

Ottawa has said Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people with status under the Indian Act regardless of vaccination status who have been in one of the 10 African countries in the past 14 days will have to obtain a valid pre-departure molecular test in a third country before continuing their journey to Canada. They will also have to complete testing upon arrival to Canada and isolate in a designated hotel until they get a negative result. Once they do they can finish isolating at home but must get tested again eight days after arrival.

There have been growing calls for Canada to reverse its travel ban on African countries. The 10 countries affected are: Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Canada has said the decision is based on the rate community spread of the variant.

The federal health minister has said the enhanced screening, testing and quarantine measures for all international travellers could take effect any time depending on the airport and when they can get logistics in place.

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