Canada has shut its borders to people from the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak.
In a move that puts it in line with measures already taken by Australia but at odds with the World Health Organization, the Canadian government said on Friday that effective immediately it was refusing visa applications from nationals and residents of countries with widespread and persistent transmission of the Ebola virus. Permanent residence applications of people from the affected countries were also being put on hold.
Currently only three countries fall into the category of countries with widespread and persistent Ebola transmission: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The United States does not fall into this category as it has just one active Ebola case at the moment.
Law experts have condemned the move, saying it breached the International Health Regulations (IHR), which Canada helped to draft following the 2003 SARS outbreak, and that it risks destroying the IHR.
But the Canadian government defended the move, saying the steps taken were “precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of Canadians.” The decision does not affect Canadians in Africa – Canadian health-care workers aiding in the effort to combat Ebola would be allowed back into Canada.
Additionally, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander would have the discretion to grant entry to Canada on a case-by-case basis in circumstances “where travel is essential and in Canada’s interest.”
“The precautionary measures announced today build on actions we have taken to protect the health and safety of Canadians here at home,” Mr. Alexander said.
The move comes as Australia issued a blanket ban on visas for citizens and residents of the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak.
That move was condemned by the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, who said closing borders would not help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus.
“I understand the fear in the community, but the fear factor is way too high and out of proportion to the risk,” Chan told Bloomberg News. “No evidence exists to support the effectiveness of travel bans as a protective measure.”
The WHO declared Ebola an international public health emergency on Aug. 8 but has since repeatedly stressed that countries should not close their borders to African countries struggling with Ebola.
Under the International Health Regulations (IHR), countries agree to follow the recommendations of the WHO during Public Health Emergencies of International Concern.
The IHR were drafted to help the world combat international outbreaks of infectious disease. In 2005 they were revised following the SARS outbreak, with emphasis put on not penalizing countries affected by outbreaks as doing so would make them more likely to cover up epidemics rather than reveal them.
The IHR mandates that countries that go beyond the WHO’s recommendations have to back up their decisions with solid rationale. Both Canada and Australia may have to explain their decisions and produce evidence to support their actions to the WHO.
“There isn’t a public health or scientific justification for what Australia and Canada are doing. Therefore they are in violation of their obligations under the International Health Regulations.” according to David Fidler, of Indiana University.
The fact that Canada and Australia — both supporters of the WHO and major players in international public health arena — are taking these actions is seen as regressive and disheartening.
“Canada is known as being a champion of well-informed, scientifically based, evidence-solid policies. Then something like this happens and it’s not only disappointing, it’s also a violation of international law. And both Australia and Canada have the capacity to deal with this issue in a way which doesn’t have such adverse effects on these West African countries which are suffering from this unprecedented epidemic.”
Canada receives very few travellers from the affected countries. According to Dr. Kamran Khan, of the University of Toronto, research shows that in any given year only about 1.5 per cent of people travelling from those countries come to Canada, with their combined travel making up half of one per cent of all international air travel in 2013. This year the figure would be substantially lower as many air carriers have halted their flights to the affected countries.
The latest figures from the WHO reveal that at least 13,567 people have been infected since this Ebola outbreak began, and 4,951 have died.