‘It will take time to rebuild trust’: Travel bans upended lives of African students in Canada

Fergie Galeromeloe doesn’t regret his decision to study actuarial science and statistics at the University of Toronto, but travel bans and restrictions have the Botswana native, along with other African students at Canadian universities, thinking about Canada differently.

Galeromeloe was looking forward to visiting his family over December’s holiday season for the first time since 2019 but following the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in late November, Canada, the United States and several European countries placed travel restrictions on 10 African nations, including Botswana and South Africa, where the variant was first detected.

Galeromeloe was forced to cancel his visit. “I was devastated,” he said. “I can’t see my sisters. I can’t see my family. My nephew was born during the pandemic and, literally, December was going to be my first time meeting him.”

Galeromeloe found it especially frustrating that the ban, rescinded Dec. 18, applied only to African countries, though cases of Omicron had also been reported in Europe and North America.

“Why are you singling out only these African countries? Why aren’t you singling out countries in Europe? It makes no sense whatsoever, because people are still travelling from the Netherlands and from all these countries into Canada,” he said. “I thought, basically, Canada’s like a progressive country, but this actually is a racist situation.”

Srinivas Murthy, co-chair of the World Health Organization’s clinical research committee on COVID-19 and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, says of the restrictions on African countries: “I think there’s very little logic or science behind it, and I think it speaks more to our collective, systemic, cultural racism toward specific regions of the world.”

Lulwama Mulalu, also from Botswana, was facing the opposite problem. A first-year PhD candidate in global health at McMaster University in Hamilton, Mulalu had been attending her program virtually from Botswana and hoped to travel to Canada at the end of December.

“I’ve done a lot of online school, which hasn’t been easy. So, I was really looking forward to being on campus and doing in-person learning, even though I think there’s a nervousness to that and a fear to that because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. But still, it gave you a sort of hope,” Mulalu said at the time.

But on Nov. 30, Canada announced that travellers coming from any of the 10 African countries subject to the restrictions had to travel to a third country and obtain a negative PCR test before flying to Canada, complicating Mulalu’s plans.

Mulalu said that the testing requirements created a significant financial barrier for students. “I thought that was so absurd because where are you expecting me to get all that money? It’s a very expensive thing.” 

She also said she found the testing policy to be hypocritical: Why couldn’t she be tested in Botswana? “So, you will accept the science that identifies the variant, but you won’t accept the same science that conducts the PCR tests?”

The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa.

For Mulalu, Canada’s image “that is disseminated to the world is of a very multicultural, encompassing country. But then when you look at the policies or if you are a person who is actually affected by the policies, it’s a very different image that you get.”

They were not the only ones questioning the logic of the travel restrictions and testing policies. Many experts and advocates criticized the decision as unfairly discriminatory towards African nations and lacking in scientific basis.

The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a Nov. 29 statement.

And while travel restrictions could, in theory, prevent the spread of COVID to different regions, in practice they are often incompatible with the world we live in today, said Murthy. “This isn’t the 1600s. People will be travelling and will be moving.”

Over the course of the pandemic, “we’ve seen countries enact sort of specific travel-based policies based on case counts in some regions and new variants in other regions, and always, inevitably, that does not delay or prevent whatever they’re trying to prevent from emerging within their borders,” said Murthy.

Rita Abrahamsen, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a specialist in African politics, agrees. Rather than being based in science, these policies reflect “a reaction against Africa that seems to indicate that African countries are less able to govern, less able to control the variant of Omicron and totally disregarding and overlooking the fact that South Africa and Botswana isolated this case of the COVID virus, precisely because they have strong science.

“We’re looking at two countries that have the unfortunate past of having had an HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has put them at the forefront of this type of medical science,” she said.

For Mulalu, who is arriving in Canada in February, this was one of the most heart-breaking parts of the situation. “South Africa’s intention was to do good and was to alert the world that, ‘Hey, there’s a new variant. Let’s be transparent. Let’s work together. Let’s cooperate. And then what do we get in the face of that? A whole ban.”   

Abrahamsen says that rather than being based in science, the restrictions are a “performance of competency – something we can do, something the government can say they do.”

Despite criticism, the Public Health Agency of Canada defended the travel policy in a Dec. 17 news release, noting: “While we recognize the controversial nature of this measure, we believe it was necessary to slow the arrival of Omicron in Canada and buy us some time. Given the current situation, this measure has served its purpose and is no longer needed.”

But, while the measures are no longer in force, their effects have already been felt.

“I think it’s very damaging to Canada’s standing within the African countries,” said Abrahamsen. “For African students who always want to come to our universities to study, they must ask themselves, ‘Why us? Why not anyone else? If you want us to come, then treat us equally.’

“I think it will take time to rebuild the trust and sense of equality. There’s not an equal partnership here.”

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Daneese Rao


 Daneese Rao is a Global Journalism Fellow at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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