CBC News has discovered that Canadians wishing to return from abroad after the COVID-19 pandemic easily bypass air travel controls to prevent sick and infected passengers from boarding airplanes.
Some simply hide the symptoms from the authorities to make sure they can go home.
CBC News has found a number of cases where sick travelers have boarded airplanes in Canada, regardless of the risk of spreading the infection.
“Now is the worst time to cough, sneeze or report any type of symptom at an airport,” said a student from Toronto, who flew back from Spain on March 14. She admitted that she had deliberately concealed her symptoms and the fact that she had suffered from fever a few hours before boarding the flight.
“This is not information that you have provided. I therefore remained silent about it.”
The CBC has agreed not to disclose her name to protect her from backlash, since she traveled two days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that anyone with symptoms would be denied boarding on flights. return. In addition, she was not officially diagnosed with COVID-19 until after she returned home, and public health officials are now following all of her contacts.
WATCH | Canadian woman talks about decision to go home despite unease
She said that she was not sick when she bought her ticket, but that she developed a fever the day before her flight and took precautions to wear a mask and gloves on the plane to to prevent the spread of any disease.
Although she did not technically flout the rule set by the government, her experience mirrors that of many Canadians stranded abroad during the pandemic.
“My priority was simply to be able to take the first flight back to Canada. You know, whatever the consequences,” she said, citing pressures from her university, the Canadian government and her family, who begged her to go home. .
Her case shows how weak the screening of air travelers through Canada is, because it is based solely on voluntary reporting of symptoms.
Even the “improved screening” adopted in recent days comes down to a simple series of health questions asked of air travelers and does not involve any physical detection, testing or thermal screening currently used in many other countries.
Temptation to “lie”
Jane Salhani of Aurora, Ontario, north of Toronto, returned home from Munich on Sunday on an Air Canada flight where a manifestly ill traveler had passengers and chaperones on board.
“This one woman, she was wearing a mask. She coughed for nine hours. I mean, everyone on this flight was extremely upset,” Salhani told CBC News. (Disclosure: Salhani is related to one of the authors of this article.)
Salhani recalled that airline officials asked passengers if they felt sick or had a fever before boarding, but thought it was not terribly effective in preventing sick people from leaving. planes.
“I’m sure the temptation is there to lie, because you want to go home to your own health system … if you don’t feel good, right? You don’t want to be stuck in a foreign country,” she says.
Now at home in isolation with her husband, Salhani wondered if airline and public health officials would be in touch with a potential exposure. She noted that the sick passenger was taken apart and questioned upon arrival at Toronto Pearson Airport, as all of the arriving passengers received brochures asking them to isolate themselves for 14 days.
“I’m sure we got on this healthy plane,” said Salhani. “I’m not sure we left this plane in good health.”
Use of the honor system
The World Health Organization has published a notice mid-February Call on all countries to interview all travelers about the symptoms and to implement “detection of sick travelers” at airports and border crossings to stem the epidemic of COVID-19.
Canada, faced with criticism of lack of control both at international airports and upon arrival in Canada, placed new orders on all airlines last Wednesday to prevent travelers with COVID-19 symptoms from boarding on international flights to Canada.
But the “Health check” imposed by Transport Canada – presented as “detection of sick travelers” – is a total honor system that simply requires airline staff to observe passengers on board and ask if they have felt sick or have had a fever.
Air Canada and WestJet both said they had prohibited certain passengers from boarding, but refused to say how many.
The CBC has spoken to many travelers who have recently returned to Canada and who have noticed the new questions posed when they boarded their return flight.
Eugene Haslam, who flew to Montreal from Paris on Sunday on Air Transat, said the airline had signs, air announcements and staff were asking questions before boarding. But he recognized that this approach will only work if travelers are honest.
He said he understood the need to “act accordingly” and not put “others at risk”, but acknowledged that other travelers think differently.
“Many people will say,” Fuck him! I do not care! “And therein lies the problem,” said Haslam.
“We don’t have superpowers”
The situation has prompted air crews and their unions to call for more guarantees to prevent sick travelers from boarding planes.
“We are told daily that there are people who come back sick. [There are] the people who come back, you know, wear masks, protect themselves, but they are always sick passengers, “said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
WATCH | Union president outlines some of the concerns of airline workers
He stated that flight attendants are currently exempt from the 14-day self-isolation rules and that many fear being exposed to the virus unfairly.
“We have no superpowers. We have to realize that we are humans too. And we can contract the same things that a passenger can embark,” he said.
Canada has not yet adopted measures to test arriving passengers for the coronavirus, as is done in at least a dozen countries around the world.
These are usually temperature checks or thermal tests to detect feverish passengers, and this is done in countries like the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and Indonesia.
A number of Canadians returning home by plane from Mexico last week report that Mexico’s airport authorities screen all passengers for fever using thermal imaging cameras, noting that Canada has not such technology in place.
“Dangerous” working conditions
Signs of increased control at the four Canadian airports still receiving international flights – in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal – include increased signage and additional Canada Border Services Agency officers asking passengers questions.
Flight attendants say it’s just not enough.
In recent days, they have been supplied with N-95 masks and gloves, but an Air Canada flight attendant who works on transatlantic flights said she and her colleagues were in danger.
“Why don’t we have to quarantine when we get home?” she asked. (CBC does not name her because she is not allowed to speak in public.)
“If I caught something, I pass it on to many, many more!” she wrote in a text message. “We will continue to distribute it around the world.”
“Even if I am proud to repatriate all my fellow citizens, I am also afraid of working in these dangerous conditions.”
With files by Matthew Pierce