CANADA has joined Australia in suspending entry visas for people from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa in an attempt to keep the deadly disease from its shores.
But the move has been condemned by legal experts and opponents as a violation of international health laws.
The Conservative government in Ottawa is suspending visa applications for residents and nationals of countries with “widespread and persistent, intense transmission” of the viral disease.
But Canadians, including healthcare workers in West Africa, will be permitted to travel back to Canada and the country has not yet had a case of Ebola. It receives very few travellers from affected countries. And none of those countries, including the three worst affected – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – have direct flights to Canada.
Canadian health minister Rona Ambrose insisted her “number one priority is to protect Canadians”. Immigration minister Jason Alexander said the government would act in the “best interests of Canadians”.
Kevin Menard, a spokesman for Alexander, said the move is similar to, but a bit less restrictive than, the one the Australian government of Conservative politician Tony Abbott announced last week. But Menard later called it “considerably different”.
“We have instituted a pause, but there is room for discretion and if we can be assured that someone is not infected with Ebola,” Menard said.
Nancy Caron, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada – which handles visas – added that “a number of African countries have imposed stricter travel bans as have several other countries around the world.
“Others, such as the US, have started to place restrictions on travellers from countries with Ebola outbreaks.”
Canada said its citizens or foreign nationals with a visa and foreign nationals who do not require visas will continue to be screened at ports of entry and will be subject to appropriate health examinations.
However, the decision drew widespread condemnation.
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said it welcomed Canada’s support in fighting the Ebola outbreak but was “against isolating the three most impacted countries and stigmatising its citizens.”
A similar move by Australia was slammed last week by Dr Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation’s director general, who said closing borders would not stop Ebola spreading.
David Fidler, an international law professor at Indiana University, said the moves by Canada and Australia place both in violation of the International Health Regulations, a 2005 WHO treaty to which both are signatories.
The treaty “just seems to be disintegrating in this Ebola panic”, Fidler said. “And to have countries like Australia and Canada in the forefront of this is even more disheartening,” he said, as both countries had been supportive of the international treaty meant to prevent panic during such a health crisis.
New Democrat Libby Davies of the Canadian opposition also criticised the visa ban, citing criticism by the WHO and the World Bank and questioning the timing of the announcement.
“Sending this announcement only worsens concerns that this policy is a public relations exercise, and irresponsibly ignorant of what health experts have advised,” she said.
The International Health Regulations are designed to help the world fight infectious disease outbreaks that have the potential for international spread. They were revised and strengthened in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak when the WHO had to issue travel advisories directing people around the world to avoid places battling severe outbreaks.
Health officials say that more than 13,700 people have been infected by Ebola, while nearly 5,000 have died.