Heading home for the holidays — or just getting back to Canada after a trip — now seems possible once again after a temporary exemption to travel restrictions was announced on Saturday.
But the wider travel ban policy recently imposed by the Canadian government is still being criticized as unscientific by leaders of countries in southern Africa.
The federal government announced Saturday evening it would tweak newly implemented restrictions on travel from South Africa, allowing Canadians to return home if they have a negative molecular test taken within two days of departure and leave on flights transiting through Frankfurt on or before Dec. 13.
The shift comes after many Canadians — including travellers like the junior women’s field hockey team or Canadians trying to get home for the holidays — spoke out about the clashing restrictions that they say made it effectively impossible to return home.
Charl Coetzee, a Canadian who was stuck in South Africa, said he was thankful the government had moved to provide an exemption for people like him but that it was the government’s restrictions that had infringed on his ability to return home.
“By Friday last week, it was actually feeling like our government had abandoned its citizens,” Coetzee said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.
Coetzee told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that he had arrived in South Africa just hours before South African researchers announced they had discovered the omicron variant, and he wasn’t able to get out of the country before travel restrictions were imposed around the world.
“I never imagined that this present government could impose requirements on return travel … that effectively made it impossible to return,” he said.
Coetzee says he had booked five different flights to try to get out of the country, and he co-ordinated in a WhatsApp group with about 250 other Canadians also facing challenges returning home.
Asked about a similar situation in an interview on CBC’s The House that aired prior to when the exemption was announced on Saturday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the measures were meant to protect Canadians.
“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. And that does include placing some travel restrictions on those transiting from or through a certain number of listed countries,” he told host Chris Hall.
Canadians returning from South Africa will still need to abide by new testing and quarantine restrictions.
Travel measures ‘unscientific’: Malawi president
While the temporary exemption has helped some Canadians in South Africa, strict rules still bar non-Canadians from entering Canada if they’ve travelled through any of 10 named countries, mostly in southern Africa, over the preceding two weeks.
The rules have been criticized by southern African leaders, who have argued the region is being unfairly singled out, given that omicron cases have been detected in countries around the world.
“We have come out in total rejection of these bans that have been imposed on southern Africa, and we are insisting that they be lifted,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said earlier this week.
“We understand the need for nations to protect their citizens. But the World Health Organization has gone ahead to state that travel bans are not necessarily the solution,” Lazarus Chakwera, president of Malawi, told Barton on Sunday.
The travel ban “looks unfair to us. It looks unscientific and it looks unilateral,” he said.
Chakwera said he was hoping to see more vaccine contributions from developed countries and multilateral co-operation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The travel bans run counter to that sort of co-operation, he argued.
“We are encouraged to face this pandemic together, and it was an isolation of southern Africa, even though it had just been southern Africa that had identified this strain. And so one wonders why do we [act from] emotion rather than science?” he said.
Experts have argued that travel bans are not effective at slowing the spread of the virus and that it’s risky to punish countries for being transparent when monitoring uncovers a new variant.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told Barton he sympathized with the difficulty the 10 countries were facing, but the measures were necessary to protect Canadians.
“We know that the situation is very harsh and a lot of uncertainty and stress in most countries is certainly in the 10 countries that we have identified,” he said.
“That was the right thing to do. We don’t focus on people, on any citizenship, we focus on those that have travelled through a number of countries, the 10 that we have identified.”
Cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Canada, as well as in many other countries around the world, and some are thought to predate the first identification of the virus in South Africa.
You can full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.