A Brandon, Man., couple who are quarantining in a Toronto hotel after a recent trip to South Africa say they feel "criminalized" as travellers after the federal government placed restrictions on 10 African countries due to the presence of a new coronavirus variant of concern.
A day after Lennard and Charlotte Skead left for South Africa, where they're both originally from, the World Health Organization released information about a new coronavirus variant of concern called omicron, or the B.1.1.529 variant, which was discovered in the country.
The couple, who were in South Africa to access medical care, made several attempts shortly after their arrival to find an airline to bring them back to Canada.
"We were extremely frustrated in not being able to find much [airline tickets] because of course there were hundreds of people, hundreds of Canadians there wanting to get back. Calls to the airlines took hours on hold; it was total chaos," Lennard Skead said.
On their trip back to Canada, they had to take six COVID-19 tests, which all came back negative, before being allowed to re-enter the country.
Skead says he just feels grateful they made it back.
"We were just lucky," he said, although it cost them a lot of money to return — a total of almost $23,500 so far for flights, COVID-19 tests and hotels.
In addition, their bags were lost and the food they've been served in the hotel consistently contains allergens, which the couple has brought to the attention of staff.
Restrictions meant to protect Canadians
Health Canada announced on Nov. 26 that foreign nationals who had travelled through any of the seven affected countries — including South Africa — in the last 14 days will not be permitted entry to Canada, in order to slow the spread of the omicron variant in Canada.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home, but they must quarantine and be tested for COVID-19.
Four days later, three other nations were added to the list of countries with travel restrictions, which went into effect on Wednesday.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference on Friday that Canada has had strong border measures throughout the pandemic to protect the health and safety of Canadians.
"I believe, and that's what we hear from public health officials, that what we've announced last week on Friday [Nov. 26] and on Tuesday is currently the best set of measures, given the necessity and capability with which we are facing when we're dealing with these issues," he said.
Duclos said travellers from the 10 countries should expect to be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive in Canada and be ready to isolate.
"It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers, but we're ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day," he said.
Meanwhile, Skead, who is three days into his quarantine, believes travellers like himself and his wife are being treated poorly.
He says he wishes there was a grace period for travellers who were already abroad when restrictions were announced.
"My experience from landing in Toronto Pearson [International Airport] right up into the hotel has made us feel criminalized," Skead said.
"It has made us feel as though we are not welcome in our own country and that we are carrying some kind of terrible disease that's going to be the end of the world, despite our six negative COVID-19 tests."