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Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
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The Omicron is out of the bag
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The Omicron is out of the bag

“Every time we repeat the same mistake, the price goes up.” — Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist 

The world’s response to Omicron variant is demonstrating how we haven’t quite learned our COVID-19 lessons. Not yet. Plus, the new premier is heading a leaky government and just about everyone — except CBC — is upset about it.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro 

To ban travel or not ban travel, that is the question facing governments and political leaders around the world as the Omicron variant (or as the folks in my house call it, the Transformer variant) poses a new threat.

You would think that after 21 months of pandemic, we surely have a handle on when travel should be suspended, from which countries and for how long.

Lamentably, none of that is true. We haven’t really learned a thing. Governments around the world are rushing to repeat all of the same mistakes we made the first time around in terms of travel bans.

A man walks through Winnipeg’s airport earlier this year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

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The Pandemics & Borders project, a joint effort involving academics from Simon Fraser University, the University of Maryland and the University of Hong Kong, has been studying that exact question. Here’s what they found over the first year of the pandemic.

First, suspending air travel can be effective at controlling some transmission of the novel coronavirus. Karen Grépin, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Pandemics & Borders team, wrote an excellent piece of explanatory journalism this week in The Washington Post on how closed borders, suspended travel and other pandemic mitigation efforts did have success in producing “measurable reductions in the number of cases exported … internationally.”

However, these strategies did not contain the virus because, even as these restrictions were being implemented, the virus was already present in countries to which travel bans did not apply. As a result, “the virus spread faster than the targeted restrictions countries had imposed, and soon imported cases were coming from places outside of China, such as Iran and Italy, which were not subject to travel restrictions,” Grépin wrote.

“Targeted travel restrictions, such as those currently imposed on southern African countries, are effective only at preventing cases from places where the virus has been detected — not necessarily where it is now, and certainly not where it will be in the future.”

Although Pandemics & Borders are among the most articulate on this topic, they are hardly alone. I found nearly a dozen studies over the past 18 months that came to the same conclusion: targeted travel bans don’t work.

There should be an international protocol for restricting borders and travel, so that all countries are moving in lockstep with each other and applying measures that actually work. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

What does work? Restrictions on travel that are accompanied by aggressive controls on arriving travellers — mandated and supervised quarantines for example — along with aggressive domestic restrictions such as occupancy limitations or cancellations of large public gatherings.

Why then is Canada banning travel involving foreign nationals from seven African countries in the wake of the Omicron discovery? No one is quite sure, but many are quite angry.

Ambarish Chandra, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, wrote a commentary in The Globe and Mail that directly challenges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for its uneven and unjust travel bans.

Chandra noted that in late 2020, the Trudeau government imposed a 17-day travel ban on the United Kingdom which, at that time, was a COVID-19 hotspot. However, Ottawa had imposed a similar travel ban on India earlier in the year that lasted 158 days and extended to a period when case numbers there were extremely low. “The speed with which the latest travel bans have been imposed on southern African countries suggests yet again that Canada is quick to impose harsh measures on the developing world but reluctant to do so with wealthy, Western countries,” he wrote.

True enough. Not only are the travel bans being imposed by Ottawa right now completely useless in epidemiological terms, but they are horrifically unfair. That is largely why the World Health Organization has strongly recommended against targeted travel bans. The only saving grace for Canada is they are hardly alone in applying a flawed, unjust strategy to Omicron.

Canada is banning travel involving foreign nationals from seven African countries in the wake of the Omicron discovery. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

CNN has compiled a very handy global summary of travel restrictions that shows how countries have restricted travel. Countries such as France, Greece, Germany, Egypt, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand, among many others, are using the same targeted approach against the same handful of southern African nations.

Now, compare that list with a list of countries that have already reported confirmed cases of Omicron. Like this one from Bloomberg.

The Omicron is out of the bag and the travel restrictions are doomed to fail.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, we should have an international protocol for restricting borders and travel, so that all countries are moving in lockstep with each other and applying measures that actually work.

Maybe we’ll get our act together for the arrival of the next horrifying variant.

Journalist, heal thyself

The “leak” is one of the metrics by which journalists prove their worth. Reporters that get lots of leaks are typically rewarded with plumb assignments. However, a leak can also be a double-edged sword, as witnessed by events surrounding the recent Speech from the Throne in Manitoba.

On the morning of November 23, hours before the throne speech was to be delivered, CBC News had tweeted out details of the speech. The entire speech, from top to bottom. Although it’s not unusual for news organizations to get tactical leaks from government — bits and pieces to drive headlines and news coverage — but the entire speech? Searching my own memory banks and talking with other political journalists, we couldn't remember that ever happening.

Manitoba’s throne speech was delivered to Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, Janice Filmon, for the reading of the Speech from the Throne at the Manitoba Legislature. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Never say never but we can say almost unprecedented.

How could this happen? Neither Premier Heather Stefanson nor her senior staff would admit to leaking the speech and — call me naïve — I tend to believe them. Leaking the entire speech is clumsy and amateurish. Anyone with any experience at the senior levels of government political staff would know a move like that is more trouble than it’s worth.

So, who then? Tory government sources noted that in a rare and perhaps risky move, the speech was circulated among a much larger group of political staffers than normal. Sending the speech out to the second and third tiers of political staff is almost undoubtedly the context for this leak. The specific individual has not, to date, been identified.

No matter how you look at it, this leak has inflicted some serious damage on the reputation of the newly minted Stefanson government. In particular, it has put brand new communications director Sean Kavanagh in a difficult position.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, right, walks to her office with her assistant Olivia Billson after speaking to media prior to the reading of the Speech from the Throne at the Manitoba Legislature. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

A longtime reporter for CBC before joining Stefanson’s senior staff, Kavanagh is a convenient scapegoat for the leak. So convenient, in fact, that is almost certainly not him.

Having negotiated many a leak and tip, I can tell you that it is very hard to take receipt of information that can be tied directly back to your source. There are various ways to launder a leak or tip — have another journalist write the story, get on-the-record corroboration of the information so you don’t have to use any unnamed sources — but in the end, if government can easily figure out who gave you the information, then your source will be burned.

In this instance, Kavanagh is the least-likely person to have leaked the speech to his former employer. That doesn’t make this incident any less concerning.

Stefanson has vowed to investigate the leak and promised those responsible will face “consequences and actions.” Yu-huh.

One final note: there is a big difference in journalistic value between a leak (something government wants you and others to know) and a scoop (something that government doesn’t want you to know or report). Although the throne speech is a good leak, it’s not much of a scoop.

 


 

Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise. 

 

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