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It's Time To End Canada's Ebola Visa Restrictions

11/04/2015 03:53 EST | Updated 11/04/2016 05:12 EDT
Noelle Smith via Getty Images
Canadian passport tucked insidebungee cord of backpack

It's now been a year since Canada stopped issuing visas to people from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- the three most Ebola-affected countries in West Africa. This move was illegal, unhelpful and wrong-headed then, but these visa restrictions remain in place against two of these countries despite the outbreak's apparent containment.

As of this writing, over the past month there have been only three new cases of Ebola globally. Here's a quick win for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: put an end to these visa restrictions. It could not come a moment too soon.

Ebola first broke out in Guinea in December 2013, spread to other West African countries over the following half-year and finally received global attention in August 2014 when an American doctor contracted it while working in Liberia. At that time there were a couple thousand new Ebola cases each month. The World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern.

Canada panicked. But unlike other countries, we overreacted. Our mantra -- better be safe than sorry -- actually made us less safe and continues to make us sorry.

To explain, lawyers like myself have argued from the beginning that Canada's visa restrictions were illegal. They contravene the International Health Regulations, a legally binding treaty among 196 countries, which disallow travel restrictions unless based on sound scientific principles, public health advice, or a recommendation from the World Health Organization.

Public health professionals have also argued monolithically against these kind of measures. They say they don't work, they push travel underground and they are counterproductive to the needed medical response. The World Health Organization's Ebola Interim Assessment Panel condemned these kind of restrictions as "untenable" and a "serious threat" to public health.

Some commentators even labeled Canada's move as fundamentally unjust and potentially racist , highlighting the fact that Canada only imposed these restrictions against visiting West Africans and not against returning Canadians, as if our citizenship or skin colour protects us from viruses.

Irrational and unfair travel bans like this certainly don't make us safer in the long term. They discourage countries from reporting future outbreaks in their jurisdictions, thereby allowing disease to fester, spread across borders and pose greater risk to all.

With every emergency there comes a time when temporary edicts are ended as part of the return to normalcy. For Ebola, that time has already passed. Sustained transmission of the virus has concluded and the international community is already starting to plan for what comes after.

Canada ending its visa restrictions would have the added benefit of bringing our country into compliance with its international legal obligations. Such a move would also be in line with evidence-based public health guidance. It would end the ugly shadow of indifference that has affected our country's reputation on the global stage.

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