Canada’s COVID border measures pose challenges for international students

Despite being vaccinated, some returning students will have to self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the country.

Since July 5, fully vaccinated international students have been exempt from a mandatory two-week quarantine following their arrival, along with Canadian citizens and permanent residents. However, this rule only applies to travellers whose vaccine is approved by the Canadian government.

Implementing the proof-of-vaccination policy has allowed Canada to ease its border restrictions just in time for the fall semester. Still, only four vaccines are currently accepted by the border security agents: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD, and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson).

Ahmed Kamel, a computer engineering student at Concordia University, will be required to self-quarantine for two weeks upon his arrival from Cairo, Egypt — while being fully immunized with the Sinopharm vaccine.

“Here in Egypt I wasn’t given a choice on which vaccine I wanted to take, so it was either the Sinopharm vaccine or nothing,” said Kamel. “Rich countries like Canada and the States acquired Pfizer vaccines long before our region did, so they’re simply unavailable here.”

The Sinopharm vaccine is manufactured in China and has an efficacy of 79 per cent against symptomatic infection two weeks after the second dose. It became the first vaccine developed by a non-Western country to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for emergency use.

The Canada-approved AstraZeneca had also been administered in Egypt, but its scarce supply of four million doses was enough to fully immunize just two per cent of Egyptians, a nation of 102 million people.

“Travellers like me with Sinopharm are definitely more protected from the virus than non-vaccinated people, so it’s unfair that we’re all placed in one group and face the same restrictions at the border,” Kamel added.

In addition to Canada, the Sinopharm vaccine is considered invalid by an overwhelming majority of European Union countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As each country implements its own vaccine-approval criteria, the WHO has issued a joint statement with COVAX on the inequalities such practices create, and how this causes further economic damages for developing countries.

“Any measure that only allows people protected by a subset of WHO-approved vaccines to benefit from the re-opening of travel into and with that region would effectively create a two-tier system, further widening the global vaccine divide and exacerbating the inequities we have already seen in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” the organization stated on July 1. 

Although Health Canada has confirmed that officials continue to monitor vaccine-related data from the WHO, there are no current plans to validate the Sinopharm vaccine in the country.

As university classes resume on Sept. 7, the two-week quarantine would overlap with the month of August, causing Kamel to pay for one extra month of rent to have a valid lease agreement for the border agents. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment reaching $1,350 in Montreal, finding affordable housing was an “enormous challenge on its own” for the student.

Searching for a residence remotely has also been an issue for Juanes Lucuara, a civil engineering student from Colombia. The mandatory 14-day quarantine discouraged his family from visiting Montreal earlier this month, thus cancelling all in-person apartment viewings.

“We would have to spend over $2,000 on our self-isolation alone, so looking for apartments online was our only option. I could barely see what my future home looks like from a tiny screen with an unstable Zoom connection,” Lucuara explained. “Those virtual tours felt like playing a blind-guessing game.”

In order to help returning students find a place to stay, the Off-Campus Housing and Job Resource Centre (HOJO), provided by the Concordia Student Union (CSU), is currently hosting a variety of information sessions to familiarize students with the rental process. 

On Aug. 5, HOJO will hold an online seminar called “All about the Quebec lease” from 12 to 1 p.m., followed by the “All about rental applications” session taking place from 5 to 6 p.m.

These online events are meant to inform students of their obligations, acceptance criteria, and the paperwork they need to successfully rent an apartment in Montreal.

If a student is unable to settle in Montreal before Sept. 7 due to the current travel restrictions, they may begin the fall semester remotely, provided that they make every effort to arrive as soon as possible.

While vaccination increases one’s chances of exemption from the 14-day quarantine, the Concordia administration also encourages its local students to get immunized before the fall. 

Earlier in June, Concordia’s President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr stated that “vaccination is the best way to ensure a safe return to campus”.

Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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