Few people would think of airports as arenas of power games between nations.
But the reality is that airlines and border officials are often a country’s first line of defense. Airports can be where foreign policy decisions are subjected to experimentation and where, according to Kenyan political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, “the reality of privilege and race in travel is exposed.”
I recently discovered this on my trip back to Canada from a redlisted Omicron related country. In hindsight, the trip was a cross between a scene from Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film the terminal and a chapter from Nyabola’s book, Traveling in the black.
Both works are based on the interfaces between race, gender and class in international travel.
Policy focused only on African countries
My personal experience concerns the Canadian government’s travel policy – designed to address the COVID-19 Omicron variant – which targeted several African countries. It came into effect on November 26, 2021, and on December 18, 2021, it was deemed to have “served its purpose and is no longer needed” as Omicron had a presence in countries around the world.
Nevertheless, the policies are still worth analyzing because such measures do not happen in a vacuum – they reflect historical precedents and shape future policies. It needs to be examined whether the policy has ever really served the interests of Canadian citizens.
I was in Nigeria on November 26, 2021, when the government of Canada “improved” its border measures to “reduce the risk of the importation and transmission of COVID-19 and its variants”.
This was done by imposing additional requirements on Canadian citizens and permanent residents returning from red-listed countries, which are defined as being at particularly high risk of new and emerging strains of COVID-19. The only countries on the list were African, although other countries had higher COVID-19 numbers and the variant was present in those countries at the time.
dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, justified the ban on African countries based on low vaccination coverage and uncertainty about “their ability to detect and respond [to the variant].” This claim and other African travel bans have been criticized for not being based on scientific evidence.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has repeatedly failed to provide data to support the policy.
An editorial published in the medical journal the lancet, found that the Omicron variant was identified as a result of complex sequencing work in South Africa, when some of the most technologically advanced Western countries were unable to perform the same genome sequencing tests that were required. In addition, it stressed that unless borders are sealed for travelers from all countries, selective travel bans will not work.
On November 30, 2021, Canada added Nigeria to the red list. Additional measures required from travelers included improved testing, screening and placement in a designated quarantine facility upon arrival in Canada – regardless of vaccination status or previous test results.
Canada also added an unusual requirement for a valid negative test from a third country within 72 hours of departure to Canada. This measure has received the most criticism from many Canadians, scientists and experts. It added costs and inconvenience to Canadian travelers, including traveling through unsafe and conflict-ridden environments.
Tug of war between airlines, authorities
Despite being tested in Nigeria, I decided to have my third country testing done in the UK.
I assumed PHAC would have no problem with a test from a non-African lab. However, the COVID-19 test centers at Heathrow Airport are not located at the airport itself, but have to enter the UK
This became a problem as the country no longer allowed entry for non-residents coming from countries on the red list. My attempts to get a COVID-19 test turned into a tug-of-war between British Airways and the UK Border Agency. There was a lot of confusion about what the rules were and how to humanely enforce them. I was initially refused entry which was devastating after flying for over six hours with a toddler.
Ironically, neither my fully vaccinated status nor multiple negative tests mattered to PHAC upon arrival at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. I was tested at the airport and we were taken to a designated quarantine facility.
The subpar conditions in these facilities – especially the long wait times for test results and for permission to leave PHAC – have received a lot of media attention.
In particular, more test centers were needed
How exactly have these measures served their supposed purpose? Canadian COVID-19 testing centers were lagging behind as the focus was on requiring hundreds of travelers to be retested and quarantined, rather than taking more proactive domestic measures to ensure Canadians had easy access to testing centers.
While not all African countries were on the red list, Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy medical officer of health, admitted that factors other than science influenced cabinet decisions.
“We’re working… to put together the best advice we can based on science. Decision-makers are taking that into account, but we recognize that there are other considerations at play than just a strict type of technical public health advice that we can give to ministers.”
The African travel bans highlight underlying issues in global justice, from vaccine diplomacy and intellectual property barriers to the systematic refusal to recognize African competence and agency.
It all comes down to what the PHAC agent at Pearson told me: “It’s not about your test result, it’s about where you’ve been.”