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Canada's Ebola visa ban is dumb, xenophobic, and illegal

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Handout/Getty Images

Canada is a country built by and still composed mostly of immigrants. It's a country that prides itself on being a good global citizen. It's a country that lobbied against — and was economically scarred by — short-lived travel restrictions following the SARS outbreak of 2002-03.

Now, Canada is one of only two developed countries to issue a visa ban for people from Ebola-stricken West Africa — a wrong-headed decision that is xenophobic, bad science, and against international law.

Following Australia, the federal government's department of citizenship and immigration announced last week that it would no longer grant travel visas to Canada for residents and citizens of Ebola-affected countries, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. It's also halting the residency applications of folks from these countries. The restrictions don't actually apply to Canadian travelers — but only to West Africans themselves.

Though the government is framing these moves as "new precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of Canadians," there are at least five reasons why they are  disgraceful and harmful to public health:

1) It's bad science

The decision to enact travel restrictions goes against the evidence and monolithic advice of public-health officials, who have roundly stated that travel restrictions don't work and that they will drive travel underground and make Ebola cases more difficult to track.

As I have written previously, calls for travel restrictions are revived with every pandemic threat, most recently Ebola. They haven't worked before, and everyone from the head of the World Health Organization to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have said they will only make this Ebola epidemic worse.

There's a very clear problem with using travel bans to stop Ebola: it renders useless the two best methods we have for stopping the spread of the virus. Determined people will find ways to cross borders anyway, and if they don't go through airports or they lie about where they came from, health officials can't track their movements. And this is an important point because, to fight Ebola, we need to be able to follow up with the contacts of the infected. Getting aid and resources to the region to contain the disease at the source would also become more challenging with travel restrictions.

2) It breaks international law

Specifically, visa bans violate the International Health Regulations, an international law that governs the global response to pandemics.

As Vox contributor Steven Hoffman points out, "[The regulations] require its 196 state parties to maintain disease surveillance, to share information on public health events of international concern, and to support less wealthy countries to meet these obligations. They strictly prohibit restrictions on travel or trade unless based on scientific principles, risk to human health or a World Health Organization recommendation ... WHO has not recommended these restrictions — it strongly advocates against them — and slammed Australia when that country implemented restrictions just before Canada." This makes Canada's move illegal.

3) It's hypocritical
sarstock

A young fan holding a Canadian flag with 'SARStock' during the SARS relief concert held in Toronto on July 30, 2003. (Getty Images)

As journalist Helen Branswell notes, during the SARS outbreak, short-lived travel advisories for Toronto — where there were SARS cases — cost the city's tourism industry an estimated $2 billion and led to 28,000 layoffs.

Anyone who lived in the city during that time — as I did — will remember how the usually bustling metropolis turned into a ghost town: restaurants emptied, hotels went bare, and theaters couldn't sell tickets. Things became so dire, the Rolling Stones stepped in to headline "SARS-fest" or "SARStock," the largest ticketed event in Canada's history.

Canada, a developed country with the resources and ability to defend itself at the international table, vigorously lobbied against the travel advisory and had it lifted. It also championed reforms to the International Health Regulations so that other countries would not have to needlessly suffer the consequences of decisions like the SARS travel restrictions.

The affected African countries may not have the same resources and ability to do so — and will surely suffer even more dire economic consequences if other countries follow Canada and Australia's lead.

4) It will discourage countries from being honest about disease outbreaks they're harboring

These travel bans, for no good public health reason, punish countries. If others follow Canada and Australia's lead, this may be seen as a disincentive to honestly report disease outbreaks that are occurring within your borders.

As Hoffman points out, "We blamed China for hiding SARS in 2002 only for fear of economic consequences — preventing international action and facilitating its spread to Canada in March 2003. But how can we chastise China for breaking the International Health Regulations — or other countries that similarly try to avoid travel restrictions in the future — now that we too are breaking the very same international law that we ourselves championed?"

5) It's xenophobic!

It's telling that the restrictions don't apply to Canadian travelers from West Africa but only West Africans themselves, as if Canadians in the region are incapable of spreading the virus.

At a global health conference in Ottawa yesterday, I asked a room filled with researchers, physicians and global-health professionals working around the world whether they knew of any evidence or expert opinion that weighed in favor of these kinds of travel restrictions for Ebola.

Not a single hand was raised.

Canada's move is gravely disappointing, deeply embarrassing, and harmful to health in this and future epidemics. I hope that Canada finds more evidence-based — and less hypocritical ways — to respond to disease outbreaks in the future. It has to if it's going to continue to pride itself on being a health champion and good global citizen with a big welcome mat for immigrants.