The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed deep frustration with Canada’s new COVID-19 testing requirement for all arriving air travelers due to come into effect as of 7 January 2021. While the industry for months has been calling for systematic testing to re-open borders without quarantine measures, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears, especially in Canada. Now, in a decision that can only be described as the ‘worst of both worlds’, the government is mandating that passengers provide proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test taken within 72 hours before planned departure to Canada, while at the same time declining to lift existing travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Under the new order, passengers who, despite their best efforts, are unable to obtain a pre-departure test, may travel to Canada, but will have to quarantine at a facility provided by the government at their first point of entry.
It is both callous and impractical to impose this new requirement on travelers at such short notice. Moreover, it is completely unrealistic to mandate that airlines check passengers’ compliance with the new rule, as it cannot be the airline’s role to determine if a passenger tried their utmost to get tested or not.
Canada already has one the world’s most draconian COVID-19 border control regimes, including travel bans and quarantines. Even though COVID-19 testing is an internationally accepted risk-mitigation strategy, there are no plans to adjust the current 14-day quarantine rule nor eliminate the temperature checks airlines are required to perform on passengers wishing to travel to Canada. Moreover, no explanation has been provided as to why a PCR test is the only acceptable test, given that this is not readily available in many countries.
The severe economic consequences of the prolonged border closure are already evident. Latest estimates show that the aviation sector’s direct GDP contribution to Canada’s economy dropped by US$10.39 billion in 2020 vs 2019, placing some 146,000 Canadian jobs at risk. The year-on-year fall in GDP contribution to the wider travel and tourism economy is estimated at US$21.29 billion with some 286,000 jobs at risk.
Less measurable, but equally tragic is the impact that these tunnel-vision policies to close Canada off from the world are having on individuals separated from families or those struggling to cope with unemployment. Public health is the top priority. The efforts to contain COVID-19 must take full account of the detrimental impacts that closing borders and discouraging travel is having on the mental well-being of Canadians.
The way forward is through a well-planned and coordinated introduction of testing inbound travelers, as a replacement for quarantine measures. At current infection levels, testing travelers will ensure that opening borders will not pose additional risk of contagion in Canada. We challenge the government to prove otherwise.
In the meantime, it is incumbent on the Government of Canada to put this initiative on hold until it has defined:
- Testing requirements and coordinated with the industry to achieve realistic implementation timelines;
- A policy roadmap to safely re-open borders by managing the risk of contagion with testing as a replacement for quarantine measures
We need to start 2021 by taking steps to safely live with COVID-19. What is the point of implementing testing if it does not result in a lifting of border closures nor quarantine requirements? After nine-months of closed borders and confinement, we cannot afford to move in the wrong direction with the disastrous implementation of a counter-productive testing policy.