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Canada’s COVID travel rules for China won’t stop spread of new variants: experts

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Canada‘s requirement of a negative COVID-19 test of travellers from China will not help in preventing new variants or the spread of the virus, say experts.

Kerry Bowman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, called the requirement “absolutely a political move, and not based on science at this point.”

“This isn’t the early days of the pandemic,” he said. “So, I do think it’s largely political.”

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The federal government said Saturday that people coming from China, Hong Kong and Macao will have to test negative for COVID-19 before leaving for Canada.

The requirement will apply to all air travellers aged two and older from the three countries and will begin on Jan. 5, it said.

China’s reversal from strict COVID-19 control measures has caused widespread infection in that country, although there is not much known about what various Omicron variants are in circulation, said Bowman, who teaches bioethics and global health.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea. I don’t think it makes us safer. On the surface of it, looks like governments are being proactive and sensitive and protecting their citizens,” he said.

“But it’s pretty clear that point of entry screening is not very effective at all. Often people can test positive days and weeks later.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, associate professor at University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said it’s not entirely clear what the policy’s goals are, but such measures have not helped.

“We know from the past that very focused and targeted travel measures such as this don’t do much to prevent the spread of COVID, either by importing COVID to Canada, or by the threat of variants of concern in Canada,” he said.

Bogoch said it would have helped if China had been transparent with their COVID-19 data, variants, vaccines and spread.

“But let’s not pretend that requiring travellers from China to have a negative PCR test before coming to Canada will have any impact on the Canadian experience with COVID-19,” he said. “It won’t.”

Research has shown how the virus spreads through human mobility, which means that the next variant of the virus may not even emerge from China, and even if it did, it could land in Canada from other indirect routes, he said.

Canada hasn’t been able to prevent variants as seen with Alpha, which emerged in the United Kingdom, Delta that was first discovered in India and Omicron, which arose in southern Africa, he said.

“So just requiring a negative PCR test from Chinese travellers, from a science and medical standpoint, will not have much impact for Canada,” Bogoch said.

“And that’s just unfortunately the way it is. What we can do is take measures to help reduce the burden of COVID in Canada, but we’re not going to stop the importation of this infection.”

A more effective measure, Bowman said, would be testing wastewater from airplanes and airports to check for the viral load and mutations.

Vancouver International Airport said Saturday it would expand its wastewater testing pilot program.

One of the variants, XBB. 1.5, causing concern and spreading rapidly is already in North America, Bowman said.

“It’s so important that we stay evidence based,” he said.

“I think in the years ahead when this story is told, when we have some objectivity, which I don’t think any of us really have, including me — when we’re really away from this — I think when we look at the big picture globally, we’re going to see that we did a lot of things that were much more political than evidence based.”

Bogoch said the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to mutate.

Most people in Canada have some form of immunity through a combination of vaccines and previous infections, he added.

Across the world, he said it would help people if there was more sequencing of data that would help identify and understand emerging variants.

“There’s unfortunately, less and less sequencing happening.”

But people, especially the elderly and those who have other health conditions, should get boosted to keep safe, he said. Masking in indoor settings can also reduce the probability of infection.

“If we look ahead at the foreseeable future, we’ll see waxing and waning of COVID-19 in the community. We’ll have periods of time where it’s higher, we’ll have periods of time where it’s lower just like we’ve seen over the past two years,” Bogoch said.

“And hopefully, future waves of COVID will be less and less impactful as we move forward.”

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A shortage of pilots is making travel chaos in Canada even worse – CBC.ca

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From pandemic-related travel restrictions to extreme weather events, Canada’s travel industry has navigated an unprecedented amount of uncertainty of late. And now, just as demand for travel has returned to its 2019 level, airlines are navigating their next patch of turbulence: a lack of qualified pilots.

According to Transport Canada, in a typical pre-pandemic year, roughly 1,100 pilot licences were issued. When complemented by foreign-trained pilots, that was generally more than enough to satisfy the needs of carriers as large as WestJet and Air Canada, all the way down to regional, charter and cargo airlines.

But as demand for flying collapsed in 2020, so did the number of new pilots getting their paperwork. Government data shows less than 500 licences were awarded in 2020, a figure that fell to less than 300 in 2021 and just 238 last year.

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The department told CBC News in a statement that while labour shortages in the airline sector has been “identified as a priority area for action,” there are no current plans to loosen regulations. But the agency says it’s doing what it can to “increase the competitiveness of the Canadian flight training industry as well as improve the viability of aviation careers to address any shortages.”

Whatever changes do come will do little to help anyone in the short term, and travellers are already seeing the impact of the industry’s current labour crunch.

Staff shortages were a factor in charter airline Sunwing’s cancellation of 67 flights over the last two weeks of December, along with extreme weather.

Salaries for experienced pilots generally go up faster and higher at the major airlines than they do at most others, they are so typically able to have their pick among those available. That causes shortages just about everywhere else.

The head of the Air Transport Association of Canada says it’s a problem that had been brewing for many years, even before the pandemic.

“We haven’t had enough pilots for a long time, mostly at the regional level,” John McKenna said.

Long, expensive process

Getting a commercial licence is the last step in a multi-year process of becoming a pilot, a journey that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years.

In Canada, for many that journey ends with a dream job at either WestJet or Air Canada, but because of the expense and time commitment of training a new pilot, the major airlines often hire top staff from smaller carriers instead of methodically developing their own.

“Their fishing grounds is the regional carriers. And the regional carriers go down to the smaller carriers, air taxi groups … those levels have been hurting for many years,” McKenna said.

Canada’s two biggest airlines told CBC News in emailed statements that while there is indeed a higher than normal demand for pilots right now, both of them are managing to meet their needs.

“As a large global carrier operating the most modern, largest aircraft, we are a very desirable destination for talented pilots,” AIr Canada said. “As a result, we are able to attract pilots as required.”

“We have and continue to responsibly manage and plan our operations to meet the anticipated demand of our guests and are fully staffed across our network to support our operation,” WestJet said.

That’s not the case for everyone else. Small airlines often have so few pilots on staff that it doesn’t take the loss of very many to stop planes from flying.

Dave Boston
Dave Boston is a licensed pilot and also runs a job board to help other pilots find work. (Dave Boston)

In the fall, Sunwing applied to bring in more than 60 temporary foreign workers to meet demand for pilots, but that application was rejected, which exacerbated the chaos seen at the end of 2022. The airline has since cancelled almost all flights out of Saskatchewan and most out of Manitoba for the rest of the winter travel season.

Pandemic reduced numbers, too

It’s not just the big boys gobbling up all the qualified pilots, either. Many simply left the profession during the pandemic.

“Two years ago, to the day, literally almost every pilot [was] out of work,” says Dave Boston, a pilot with 25 years experience who’s also the man behind Edmonton-based aviation job board, Pilot Career Centre.

Faced with furloughs and layoffs at airlines big and small, many pilots tried to wait it out, but many simply moved on, he told CBC News in an interview.

“Many who had businesses or other interests, after maybe six months to a year, had to put food on the table, and they left the industry,” Boston said.

For the pilots who are left, headhunting is the new normal. He says he hears from desperate airlines every day, because they either can’t find the staff, or just lost yet another one. “It’s very common for pilots, unfortunately, to work there for six months [then] get a surprise interview that they don’t expect to get, and then they’re gone,” he said.

“It’s a real challenge right now.”

Zona Savic, right, listens to her instructor inside the cockpit of a flight simulator unit at Seneca College. Savic has long dreamt of being a pilot, and a lack of qualified flyers means she should have plenty of job prospects once she graduates.
Zona Savic, right, listens to her instructor inside the cockpit of a flight simulator unit at Seneca College. Savic has long dreamt of being a pilot, and a lack of qualified flyers means she should have plenty of job prospects once she graduates. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

One person hoping to meet that challenge is Zona Savic, a soon-to-be graduate of one of Canada’s premier aviation schools, Seneca College in Peterborough, Ont.

While she had planned to go into engineering, she joined the Air Cadets while in high school, and was quickly bitten by the aviation bug.

“I just knew from the moment that I was in that plane, this is what I was going to do,” she told CBC News in an interview.

She’s on track to get her pilot’s licence soon, and while she may do additional training to become an instructor herself, she says it’s a load off her mind to know that she won’t have to worry about finding a job.

And even better for the industry, she has no qualms about working her way up at smaller carriers flying niche, remote routes.

” I just love the feeling of flying, so if that’s what I’m doing, I don’t really care if I’m in Paris, or in Nunavut,” she says. “Anything is good for me, as long as I get to experience that.”

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Canadians detained in Syria: Woman faces agonizing choice – CTV News

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When “Asiya” first heard that the Canadian government had agreed to repatriate women and children from detention camps in northeast Syria, she felt that safety was within grasp for her family — only to have those hopes dashed a few days later in a call with a federal official.

CTV News is using the pseudonym “Asiya” for the 36-year old woman out of concern for her safety inside the Al-Roj camp. Asiya is married to a man from Ottawa who was working in the Middle East and travelled to Syria as a religious scholar, she said. They have three children under the age of nine. Their oldest son has severe autism and requires brain surgery. The middle child has burns down the back of his body after falling into a kerosene heater. She says the burns are so painful, her son can’t sit and cries when he puts on clothes. Their youngest daughter was born in the camp, months after her father was thrown in prison.

Last Thursday, Asiya said she received a call from a Global Affairs official saying her children are eligible for repatriation but she is excluded from the deal because she is not a Canadian citizen.

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On Jan. 19, Global Affairs reached an agreement to bring back 19 women and children who had initially sued in federal court for repatriation. A day later, a federal judge ordered Canada to bring back four men languishing in Syrian prisons. They were alleged to have ISIS links, but have never been charged. The government is still considering whether to abide by the order or appeal it.

Neither Asiya nor her husband were part of those cases.

DEADLINE TO DECIDE

To get her children on the plane to Canada, Asiya said Global Affairs told her she must agree to relinquish custody. Asiya said the government gave her a deadline of one and a half weeks to decide.

“I have no choice. Either I lose them by not seeing them. Or I lose them here as the camp is full of young bodies,” said Asiya in a monitored phone call from the Al-Roj camp administration office.

According to Reprieve, a human rights legal advocacy group, Asiya is one of four mothers and 10 children caught in the same government-imposed dilemma.

“It’s one of the cruellest and inhumane policies we can imagine. It’s enforced family separation,” said Reprieve executive director Maya Foa in a video interview from London, England.

Global Affairs did not respond to CTV News’ request for comment on the case.

FATE OF FATHERS UNKNOWN

Foa said the Canadian fathers of these children are missing in Syria, perhaps killed during the civil war or held incommunicado in prisons. The children have never lived in Canada.

Foa said this is the government choosing to “rip these children from the one caregiver they know” to put them in the care of strangers and placing them at risk of “irreparable harm and trauma,” while leaving behind mothers who may not survive.

Foa has travelled to the camps at least 10 times to interview detainees on behalf of Reprieve and collect information to persuade governments to repatriate their nationals. There are more than 40,000 detainees from 57 countries in the camps. The majority of those living in the de facto open-air prisons are children, most under the age of 10.

According to Reprieve’s research, the majority of the women in the camps may have been trafficked.

“There are circumstances where women with particular vulnerablitieis are coerced or convinced into travel, not because they have ideological affiliation with ISIS, but because they have partners, fathers of their children,” said Foa. “The statistics in the U.K. show that 63 per cent meet the definition of potential victim of trafficking.”

Foa said she last interviewed Asiya in 2022 to prepare medical documents for her children to present to the Canadian government. Foa said the Middle East country where Asiya was born does not have a good human rights record. If Asiya and her children were to be repatriated to that country, Foa said there’s a possibility Asiya would disappear, be tortured or killed.

FOLLOWED HUSBAND TO SYRIA

In her interview with CTV News, Asiya said she was an engineer who worked in both New Jersey and Cairo. It was in Egypt where she met and married her Canadian husband in 2011. She said her husband is a religious scholar who travelled to Syria to research the Islamic State in 2015. Asiya said she followed him there with their children, to take care of him because she was worried about his health.

“He was getting sick. He was weak – he can’t even hold a camera. He has hepatitis and diabetes and genetic migraines. He can’t see at night.”

Asiya said that she has not seen her husband since 2019 after he was jailed by Kurdish forces and she and her children were placed in the camps.

CTV News has seen her husband’s birth certificate which lists his birthplace as Ottawa and shows that his parents once lived in the Vanier neighbourhood. She said her husband was previously held at the Ghwaryan prison, but does not know if he survived an attack on the prison by ISIS militants last January.

MORE LEGAL ACTION

As Asiya’s decision day approaches, more legal action is being pursued. Yoav Niv, a Calgary lawyer who argues cases in federal court, says he will be applying for a temporary resident permit to get the non-Canadian mothers to Canada.

Niv helped repatriate the first Canadian woman from a Syrian detention camp in 2021. He says Global Affairs’ decision to separate children from their mothers in these cases is morally wrong and violates United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified in 1991.

“In this case there has to be an assessment whether separation of these mothers from their children is in the best interests of the child. It’s our position that it’s not, fundamentally,” said Niv.

Alexandra Bain, with the Canadian organization Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE), is also in regular contact with Asiya and other Canadian families.

Bain said Global Affairs has told 26 women and children that they will soon be on a plane home.

“My understanding is that they will be on an American military aircraft. It will take off one time, and the (non-Canadian) mothers have been told that if they haven’t made the decision since then they will be left behind,” said Bains.

More than 40 Canadians are currently in Kurdish-operated camps and prisons in Syria. Most of them are children, hoping for a way home — desperate for an end to their abandonment.

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Canada politics: Billions not spent on promised programs – CTV News

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OTTAWA –

The federal government failed to spend tens of billions of dollars in the last fiscal year on promised programs and services, including new military equipment, affordable housing and support for veterans.

Federal departments are blaming a variety of factors for letting a record total of $38 billion in funding lapse in 2021-22, including delays and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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They also say much of the money remains available for future years.

The unspent funds also played a big part in the Liberal government posting a smaller-than-expected deficit in the year ending March 31, 2022.

Canada rang up a $90.2 billion deficit — $23.6 billion less than had been projected in the budget.

The unprecedented amount of lapsed funding, much of which has been returned to the federal treasury, has one observer suggesting it is a sign of long-standing challenges delivering on big federal projects for the country.

The amount of lapsed funds across government is spelled out in the most recent iteration of the public accounts, a report on federal revenues and spending by every department and agency tabled in the House of Commons every year.

The $38.2 billion that was reported as lapsed in the last fiscal year marks a new record over the previous year, which was $32.2 billion. That was a dramatic increase over the previous record of $14 billion in 2019-20.

That compares to around $10 billion about a decade ago, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was accused by political opponents and experts alike of using large lapses to make cuts by stealth.

Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada reported the largest lapses of all departments and agencies, with nearly $11.2 billion of their combined $28.2 billion budgets going unspent.

Much of that had been set aside for COVID-19 initiatives that were not needed, said Health Canada spokeswoman Tammy Jarbeau. Those include vaccines, personal protective equipment and rapid tests.

“Both Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada have rigorous internal financial management controls designed to prevent, detect and minimize errors and financial losses, and ensure the funding is spent in the best interests of Canadians,” she wrote in an email.

The pandemic figured in the responses and explanations from many other departments and agencies, with many blaming COVID-19 for delays.

One of them was the Defence Department, which reported a lapse of $2.5 billion in the last fiscal year. Much of the money wasn’t spent due to delays in the delivery of new military equipment such as Arctic patrol vessels and upgrades to the Army’s armoured vehicles.

There were also delays on major infrastructure projects for the military, according to Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande. Those include upgrading and rebuilding two jetties for the Navy in Esquimalt, B.C., and a new armoury in New Brunswick.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many of our business lines,” Lamirande said.

“The impacts of the pandemic on supply chain and industry capacity are causing manufacturing backlogs and delays.”

Lamirande added most of the unspent funds are expected to be available in future years through a process called reprofiling, in which schedules are revised to reflect planned spending in future years due to those delays.

Former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page said the government’s handling of lapsed funding now is “a little more relaxed” than in previous years, when unspent funds were not reprofiled and even used to justify budget cuts in Ottawa.

But defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said the Defence Department’s lapse, which has been steadily growing in recent years, is a symptom of Ottawa’s continued difficulties purchasing new military equipment.

“If we’re not getting those procurement projects through, we’re not getting new equipment into the inventory, so we don’t actually have the gear for our troops,” he said, noting many of the delayed projects were launched under the Harper government.

Perry also noted the current rate of inflation, which is already naturally higher for military equipment and the defence sector than most other parts of the economy. Not spending money now means Canada will have to pay more for the same gear and services later, he said.

The Infrastructure Department, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. and the Fisheries Department, which includes the Canadian Coast Guard, also reported delays with different capital projects, including on affordable housing and broadband internet.

“Due to the unprecedented circumstances over the last few years such as the COVID-19 pandemic, disbursing funds to proponents for many projects are expected to and will take longer,” CMHC spokeswoman Claudie Chabot said in an email.

Perry suggested a bigger problem.

“The government of Canada’s ability to actually deliver services to the public, especially when it comes to large projects, large capital projects, be it for equipment or infrastructure or IT projects, is struggling across the board,” he said.

Other federal entities with large lapses included Indigenous Services Canada, which failed to spend $3.4 billion, and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, which reported a lapse of $2.2 billion.

Spokesman Vincent Gauthier attributed much of the latter lapse to “the timing and progress of negotiations for specific claims and childhood litigations,” adding that funds will be available “in some instances” in future years.

Gauthier did not say why Indigenous Services, which is responsible for delivering federal services to First Nations, Inuit and Metis, failed to spend billions of dollars. He did say most of the money had been reprofiled “so that it will be available when recipients need it.”

Veterans Affairs Canada also reported a nearly $1 billion lapse last year, which the department blamed on fewer ill and injured ex-soldiers applying for assistance than expected.

However, critics have described earlier lapsed funding as evidence of the challenges many veterans face in accessing benefits and services. In 2014, the Royal Canadian Legion demanded the Harper government explain why $1.1 billion went unspent over seven years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

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