Travel restrictions due to omicron variant throw Winnipeggers’ plans into chaos

Restrictions on travelers from several African countries and the arrival of the new omicron coronavirus variant in Canada have upended plans for many Winnipeggers.

“The uncertainty of what will happen is very nerve-wracking for those who have plans to go,” said Titi Tijani, president of African Communities of Manitoba, Inc.

Tijani is from Nigeria. On Sunday, the Ontario government announced the first confirmed cases of omicron in Canada had been reported in travelers arriving from Nigeria at the Ottawa airport.

In response to the new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, Canada banned travel of foreign nationals from seven countries in southern Africa and imposed testing requirements on citizens and permanent residents returning from those countries.

Although Nigeria is not among the seven countries, Tijani said many people are worried about whether they would be able to get home if they went there.

“Some people are going home for very important things like weddings, funerals, that have been planned for December and some people have already bought their tickets,” she said.

Tijani planned to go to Nigeria in January, but hadn’t yet bought her ticket, she said.

On Friday, Canada imposed restrictions on anyone who has travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days.

‘It’s scary’

Peggy Venter is a Canadian citizen born and raised in South Africa. She’s in the country visiting her mom, who she hadn’t seen for three years, and was forced to cut her trip short by a week after officials with Global Affairs Canada told her to book the earliest flight back to Canada. 

She has a plane ticket for a flight on Monday, but still doesn’t know how she will get back to Canada. 

Her flight has a transfer at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam before heading to Calgary. On Friday, passengers on a flight from South Africa to Amsterdam weren’t allowed to get off the plane for hours after the European Union imposed a travel ban.

Peggy Venter is in South Africa visiting her mom. She worries she won’t be able to get back to Canada on her flight, which has a transfer through Amsterdam, after passengers on another flight were stuck at the airport for hours. (Submitted by Peggy Venter)

“We booked our flights, but Amsterdam can still say, ‘We’re not going to accept this flight from South Africa,’ and then we’re stuck there and we have to come back again,” Venter said.

“It’s scary, but right now we’re just hoping for the best, I guess.”

The omicron variant has been labelled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization. Researchers are still determining whether omicron is more contagious or virulent than other variants.

University of Manitoba infectious disease expert Jason Kindrachuk said this is a critical time in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The next few weeks are going to be very, very critical for us to understand, are we seeing any sort of immune evasion or are we seeing increases in transmissibility? And how does this compare back to delta or prior variants of concern?” said Kindrachuk, Canada Research Chair in the molecular pathogenesis of emerging viruses.

Tijani says she understands that Canada has to protect against COVID-19, but the appearance of omicron shows the need to increase global vaccination rates, and that means sharing some of its vaccine supply. 

“If everybody gets vaccinated, everybody will be protected,” she said.

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