Canada’s Isolationist Ebola Response: Hypocritical and Harmful

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

James Drummond

Ebola is scary. Previous outbreaks out the virus have shown it to be fatal for 25 to 90 per cent of those infected; moreover, the outbreak that began nearly a year ago has been accelerating at an alarming rate in recent months. According to statistics published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in October, the number of West Africans infected with Ebola had risen to 9,216 infected – and of those, 4,555 had died. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the number of infected doubles every 15 to 20 days in Liberia, and every 30 to 40 days in both Sierra Leone and Guinea.

To date, the virus has never left West Africa in any meaningful way since its discovery in 1976. In fact, since then, there have been 20 outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, all of which were effectively contained. But the most recent outbreak is unique – the nations affected are recovering from bloody civil wars and lack essential resources, such as medical facilities, to treat the virus. And even if they had the facilities, mistrust towards the government, Western aid workers, and hospitals drives many West Africans to avoid seeking treatment.

As the virus snowballs, fear has begun to govern international action. Recently, both Canada and Australia closed their borders to travellers from West Africa. While neither was the first to impose such a ban (to date, 29 countries have closed their borders to West Africans), the action was significant, as it marked the only two advanced western economies with highly developed health care systems and whom are signatories to the WHO — whose policies oppose such travel bans — to do so.

Canada in particular should know how detrimental travel restrictions can be when trying to combat an epidemic. In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) prompted the WHO to impose travel advisories on severely hit areas, including Toronto. It has been estimated that this policy cost the city upwards of $39 million in a single month. Two current members in the Federal cabinet — Tony Clement and John Baird — who were members of the Ontario Legislature at the time travelled to Geneva and demanded a retraction of the travel advisory. In 2005, Canada helped create the International Health Regulations — a WHO treaty that explicitly states that countries should not limit travel in the face of epidemics or pandemics. When Canada closed it borders to West Africans, it contradicted not only its own experience, but international commitments as well.

The government’s decision to close its borders also draws concern from a policy stance. “Closing borders” is bad policy for three key reasons. For one, borders can never be completely sealed. They are logistically difficult to protect, and restricting air travel will not stop desperate people from seeking out alternative routes into a country. A recent scientific study modelling disease outbreaks found that limiting 90 per cent of travel only delayed the arrival of the disease by eight to 12 weeks.

Second, there is an economic argument to consider in banning air travel from West Africa. The region is extremely poor, and only recently emerging from a long period of internal conflict. Banning travel will limit the amount of money flowing through the region, as in Canada; however, it will also limit the supply of basic goods and services that people need to survive, like food, fuel, and medical supplies. Such a policy would negatively impact an economy with absolutely no ability to absorb the shock, further destabilizing already precarious states and increasing the potential for new conflicts.

Lastly, as argued by both the CDC and the WHO, countries need to concentrate on devoting resources to contain Ebola at its source in West Africa. Sealing borders is resource intensive, requiring personnel, screening facilities, and infrastructure at all entry points. Devoting resources to protecting Canadians from a potential spread of the virus means that less is being directed toward West Africa.

The Red Cross has argued that there is an immediate need for more health care workers to help stop the virus from spreading at its source. They added that, with proper support, Ebola could be contained within four to six months (by their estimates). Yet travel bans that restrict resources from reaching West Africa are arguably enabling the virus to spread more rapidly within its borders.

In attempting to limit the spread of the Ebola virus, both Canada and Australia have enacted a policy response that includes closing their borders to travellers from West Africa – a response that is in fact counter-productive. Aside from violating international agreements and delaying the inevitable, the policy will further destabilizing an already vulnerable region. As Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, stated:

“I understand the fear in the community…[but] no evidence exists to support the effectiveness of travel bans as a protective measure.”

What’s more is that Canada is not even offsetting this new policy with financial support. The Canadian government has pledged $30.5 million to Ebola readiness, with only $3 million going to the WHO to help fund the fight in West Africa. Comparatively, the USA has committed over $206 million to West Africa, with an additional $65.6 million coming. Canada does not even rank in the top 10 – being surpassed in contributions by economies such as France, Switzerland, and Sweden.

While the prospect of an Ebola outbreak in Canada is indeed scary, it cannot be prevented by simply closing the country’s borders. Any policy response other than increasing aid and support in West Africa is only raising the chance of Ebola spreading and, eventually, arriving in Canada.

James Drummond is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and is studying at Sciences Po in Paris for the fall semester. His policy interests lie in international political economy, institutions, immigration, and social policy. James spent the last summer as a co-op student with the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Labour, where he worked on health and safety policy issues. 

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