The Public Health Agency of Canada announced on New Year’s Eve that travellers returning to Canada from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong, or Macao, have to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to Canada. This requirement became active on January 5 and will remain in effect for at least 30 days. 

Canada’s move follows a December COVID-19 spike in China, which happened after the PRC abruptly brought nearly all pandemic restrictions to an end after three years of adhering to a ‘zero-COVID’ policy. Health Canada’s announcement also highlighted the lack of epidemiological information from China and the threat of new global variants. 

Specialists have expressed concerns about the efficacy of the policy in mitigating COVID-19 risk, while some students told The Varsity that they see the policy as a necessary response to the pandemic crisis.

Will the restriction mitigate COVID-19?

Colin Furness — an epidemiologist at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation — told The Varsity that, fears of spiking cases and variants aside, the restriction will not do anything to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Furness argued that if the government was serious about addressing the pandemic, it would start with more obvious and effective measures, such as reinstating mask mandates. He said that travel restrictions and testing requirements must be systematic and proactive in order to be effective. 

To Furness, Canada does not have “any business” requiring negative tests from one country’s flights unless they do the same for every other country while also imposing domestic measures, but he believes that “there’s no political will to do that.”

Dr. Amit Arya — a palliative care physician and lecturer at U of T’s Department of Family and Community Medicine — highlighted that in the past, similar measures failed to mitigate the arrival of COVID-19 variants from India and Africa.  

Arya pointed out that XBB 1.5, which was the variant of concern (VOC) when the travel restriction was announced, was first identified in New York City. However, Canada does not currently impose restrictions on travellers from the US.

A VOC has an increased risk of transmissibility, and vaccines are less effective when dealing with these types of variants. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen confirmed that XBB 1.5 is considered more transmissible and contagious than previous variants. 

Concerns for COVID-19 safety

Some see the measure as an acceptable response to the COVID-19 crisis in China. In an email to The Varsity, the U of T Hong Kong Student Club wrote that many club members had been subjected to the new measure when they returned from Hong Kong after the holidays, but “did not think it was much of a hassle in general.” They also noted that Hong Kong imposes a similar restriction of its own to incoming travellers from mainland China and Macao. “Therefore, we see the implementation of such requirements as reasonable and understandable,” they wrote.

Alice Sun, a fourth-year specialist in International Development Studies at UTSC, agrees that travel restrictions between China and Canada have caused her family significant distress over the last three years. In an interview with The Varsity, Sun said that she hasn’t been able to visit her paternal grandparents in China, who live separately as her grandfather is in a senior-care home.

Sun is especially concerned for her grandmother, who must go out and buy groceries for herself amid rising infection rates. However, even as travel between the countries opens up, Sun’s family is still hesitant to visit China; they’re afraid that travel restrictions “could literally change overnight.” However, Sun believes that such policies can be helpful precautions for a country to protect its citizens. 

Pandemic politics

Canada is one of several countries, including Australia, the US, India, Japan, and South Korea, to adopt a negative testing requirement for arrivals from China since the country’s spike in cases. On January 3, a spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry accused these countries of manipulating pandemic measures for strictly political purposes, given that the measure lacks scientific rationale. 

A fourth-year UTSC humanities student with Chinese citizenship — who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about the consequences of openly criticizing the PRC — wrote in an email to The Varsity that back when the PRC was still imposing the zero-COVID policy, students at U of T and in China had protested against the “strict zero-covid policy,” which adversely impacted China’s economy as well. 

The student further wrote that when the PRC suddenly dropped the restrictions altogether, the population was entirely unprepared for the health crisis that ensued. The student noted that the results felt like an ironic sort of “punishment” for those who had been protesting. 

Still, the student described that their experience with China’s arbitrary “hostility towards foreigners” during the pandemic made them wary that Canada was following a similar pattern. They are especially concerned given the lack of scientific rationale for the measure’s effectiveness. In their email, they mentioned that “many of us come to Canada because of its openness and inclusiveness. I do not want to see those qualities fading away.”

“The pandemic is merely an excuse for some individuals to further assert their power over the visible minority group,” wrote Sun in a follow-up email to The Varsity. In the West, the pandemic has been closely associated with anti-Asian racism from its beginning. 

Furness and Arya both warn that Canada’s move will only serve to stoke racist and erroneous fears that Chinese people are a particular threat to public health in Canada.

Canada’s hypocrisy

According to Furness, Canada is not in any position to criticize the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic. Along with China, he explained, Canada has taken “the politically most expedient path,” lifting lockdown restrictions and mask mandates while neglecting to track infections, variants, causes of death, and sending a message that “everything’s fine.” 

Arya revealed that disinformation and a lack of guidance for individuals are now the main barriers to mitigating the ongoing pandemic in Canada. COVID-19-related deaths in 2022 were about 30 per cent higher than they were in both 2021 and 2020 despite huge progress in the science behind COVID-19. 

The virus “continues to cause suffering, disability, and death, and it’s very, very frustrating and demoralizing as a health worker,” Arya told The Varsity

Editor’s note (January 16): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article accidentally misrepresented a paraphrase of Colin Furness’s commentary on the travel restriction as a direct quote.