Covid: Africa travel restrictions over variant fear – BBC News

  1. Covid: Africa travel restrictions over variant fear  BBC News
  2. New COVID variant: UK urgently brings in travel restrictions to stop spread of ‘the worst one we’ve seen so far’  Sky News
  3. Covid Live Updates: South Africa Identifies New Variant; Travel Ban  The New York Times
  4. Six southern African countries added to UK’s travel red list travel amid COVID-19 variant concern  Euronews
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Travel anxiety after covid-19: How to overcome fear of flying, crowds and more

For travelers with anxiety and panic disorders, vacations did not always feel like getaways, even before covid-19. A century ago, Sigmund Freud described these feelings as “reiseangst,” from the German for “travel fear.” Travel anxiety has since become a catchall for symptoms and fears that, left unchecked, might spoil an otherwise relaxing trip.

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I shouldn’t fear for my safety on a walk from the ferry to the Pioneer Square light-rail station

When we moved from Sammamish to Bainbridge Island in 2016, I continued to be a regular traveler from Sea-Tac Airport across the U.S. and to Europe.

Getting to the airport from Bainbridge required taking the ferry to Colman Dock and then other transportation to the airport. I’d either take a cab, a for-hire car or — for many years — my preferred choice was to walk to the Pioneer Square light-rail station. Taking light rail to the airport was longer, 45 minutes versus a 15-minute car ride. But you can’t beat the $1 senior fare versus a $40-$45 car fare, plus tip.

Initially, I descended the stairs from the terminal and walked down Alaskan Way before turning east on whichever street struck my fancy that day. Later, I walked straight down the pedestrian ramp, exiting to First Avenue and from there either straight up to Third Avenue or down First Avenue to Yesler Way, and then up past Pioneer Square to the Yesler Way entrance, dragging my wheelie luggage and toting my carry-on bag over my shoulder.

Throughout 2016, the walk was of little concern. But as 2016 turned into 2017, 2017 into 2018, and 2018 into 2019, the walks became increasingly perilous. (From 2020 until May 2021, with the COVID-19-induced pandemic, my travels ground to a halt.)

However, as the homelessness problem increased in Seattle, safety became an issue. The first route to go was the walk, under the viaduct. The mini-tent city grew over time. Ferry-to-light rail walkers began walking in pairs or more.

Next up was the pedestrian bridge to First Avenue. But soon, the panhandlers filled in along First and Second avenues.

Next, I tried the new pedestrian walkway from the ferry terminal, exiting onto Yesler Way. Within seven minutes, I was at the light-rail station.

This route skirted the edge of Pioneer Square. Anyone paying attention to news or who is observant need not be reminded of potential hazards skirting Pioneer Square. But I nevertheless took this route until the pandemic shut down my travel.

Still, the plethora of homeless people, the mini-tent cities and the crime rate of Pioneer Square even then made it uncomfortable and possibly unsafe to walk from the Pioneer Square Station to the ferry on my returns, especially after dark.

Now, my travels have resumed. But use of light rail has not. The last time I drove by the Yesler Way entrance, there were five homeless persons loitering, which would have required running a gauntlet. No thank you.

This Op-Ed is not about denigrating those who are homeless. Their plight is real. No, this is about the city of Seattle’s refusal to make the city safe, or even feel safe, not only for people transiting even a few blocks but for the city council’s own constituency. When the King County sheriff and county judges told their staffs to stay home rather than work in their courthouse offices, this should have been a wake-up call for the mayor and city council. When safety is a predominate concern to avoid even getting to public transportation (created and operated with taxpayer dollars), when is the city of Seattle going to do something about the problem? Rhetoric doesn’t cut it.

I’ve talked with many ferry riders who no longer feel safe commuting to downtown and walking to their offices, restaurants, Pike Place Market or other businesses whose tax dollars and revenue support city government.

The first duty of government is safety for its citizens. Yes, safety comes in many forms, including solving homelessness. But Seattle is failing miserably on all counts.

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How I Overcame My Fear Of Flying To Become A World Traveler

Most of my adult life, fear of flying would be the antagonist of my life’s story. It was vaster than my adventure and would rob me of broadening my worldview.

At 33, having accepted an offer to travel to Brazil with a group of friends, I lamented to a colleague about my biggest fear: flying. She listened attentively to how I could not turn down this opportunity. My friend looked me straight in the eyes and spoke without judgment: “You know you can get medicine from your doctor for that?” That moment set up a 15-year love affair with traveling the world.

In 2018, in the most haphazard way and on another continent, that shifted. After fifteen years of medicated boarding and landings, I would ultimately overcome my fear of flying.

The Root Of My Fear

When I took my first flight at 23, I was plagued with thoughts of the airplane crashing. I have never enjoyed being high off the ground, the feeling of dropping, or roller coasters. My fear probably started from watching a movie that involved a plane crash as a child. I recall the scene of the plane crashing and a burned baby doll of the little girl passenger being discovered amongst the debris. I remember being so distressed by that scene as a kid myself.  

I was confined by my fear of flying for years. Only having taken a handful of flights since my initial one, I went through the panic at the highway sign to the airport. I could never fall asleep, my palms became sweaty, and once on the aircraft, I never left my seat no matter how long the trip. In 2004, I did not attend an annual conference being held in Las Vegas that year because the flight was going to be exceptionally long. At that stage, it would have been the longest flight I’d ever considered. I did not register despite having attended the bi-annual conference regularly since 1998. Those flights were painful, as well, but often shorter. It would turn into the biggest regret of my travel life.

Signs for the Great Wall.
The writer’s photo from the Great Wall of China (Photo Credit: Desiree Rew)

The Breakthrough

In 2005, when the opportunity to go to Brazil presented itself, I couldn’t refuse. I’d never traveled out of the country at this point and did not even own a passport. I couldn’t endure the same regret with this trip as I had the year prior. I accepted the advice of my friend and made an appointment with a psychiatrist. I felt apprehensive about the appointment because I had attached a stigma to seeking help in this manner. 

The first question the doctor asked was about my symptoms. What did I feel when I was on the airplane? When I told her, she informed me that my symptoms showed I had a phobia of flying and the symptoms helped her to decide the best medication to prescribe. She assured me it was not an issue of not being strong, or being dramatic, but a diagnosable condition that could be treated with medication. I was prescribed Alprazolam in a low dose and instructed to take it for flights. It worked! I would take the medication 30 minutes exactly before boarding. Taking it after boarding the plane did not ease the anxiety before taking off, which I needed. I began to go to sleep, endure flights longer than 3 hours, and even walk around and head to the bathroom. Taking the medication opened the world to me. I booked trips everywhere. I would have an annual appointment with my prescribing physician and be prescribed a month’s supply that would last the entire year with pills left over. This went on from 2005 to 2018 without incident. I would embrace my adventure and travel several times a month by airplane.

The Golden Horses in Dubai.
Golden Horses in Dubai (Photo Credit: Desiree Rew)

Letting Go

In 2018, I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for a solo vacation. I’d grown into a solo traveler and a freelance writer. My flight was not direct and consisted of a layover. During the first flight, I had taken my medication 30 minutes before boarding and drifted into a wonderful nap. A flight attendant woke me as it was time to deplane. I woke up abruptly, grabbed my bag under the seat, and rushed off the plane. What I didn’t realize is that I had left behind my small pouch containing my phone charger and my medication in the seat pocket in front of me. In my rush, I forgot the most important luggage of all. After several hours of hysteria because I was on the flight to Lisbon, not the return, I told myself there was no choice. I had to fly without the assistance. I could fly without the medicine. 

To my surprise, I hopped on my next flight and every flight after without taking medication. Flying became a routine. I’d flown so often at this point that every nuance-noise, feeling of take-off and landing was rote. I recognized turbulence to be compatible with the potholes we feel in the road when driving, and rough air no longer sent me into an alarm. I picked up another prescription upon my arrival home but never took it again. I brought it just in case, but ultimately I quit doing that.

It surprised me in a good way that after all the years of regiment surrounding taking the medication, I didn’t need it. I was no longer frightened of flying. It surprised me in a bad way that I had never questioned my ability to do it sooner. I have flown to the continents of Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa armed with only replacement headphones to ensure I could watch the inflight movies — which is now my system for getting through long flights. I overcame my fear of flying by seeking and accepting professional help. Removing the stigma provided me the experiences that would teach me to let go and enjoy the ride. 

The writer in Amsterdam.
The writer holding a pamphlet in Amsterdam (Photo Credit: Desiree Rew)

Tips For Overcoming Your Fear Of Flying

If you are facing a fear of flying that is blocking you from traveling, here are five tips I suggest to get you out there.

  1. Speak with a medical professional about your symptoms. Fear of flying is a condition that can be treated. You don’t need to deprive yourself of experiencing travel.
  2. Arrive at the airport early enough to board your plane in a calm manner. Give yourself time, relax, and mentally prepare for the flight. The uneasiness of rushing for a flight can add to feeling overwhelmed.
  3. Develop positive self-talk phrases to replace negative thoughts. 
  4. Learn to breathe. Breathing techniques can help you remain relaxed before and during the flight.
  5. Fly often! The more you fly, the more comfortable you may become with the overall experience.

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Coalition of Travel Organizations Fear US Falling Behind in Resumption of Tourism

A coalition of travel stakeholders is urging the Biden Administration to speed up the process of allowing more international tourists into the U.S.

The group, which includes Airlines for America, the U.S. Travel Association and unions representing pilots and flight attendants, say the United States should have a “risk-based data-driven” plan to ensure the industry isn’t caught off guard when restrictions are lifted.


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Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

The fear is that the U.S. will fall behind other countries, according to the Washington Post.

“The entire travel industry, and airlines in particular, like to plan,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines. “It takes time to pull planes out of storage. Several carriers have announced they’re bringing pilots back — and that takes time.”

Travel leaders have been buoyed by the success of the coronavirus vaccinations, with more than 100 million people already vaccinated in America alone. With the exception of some hot spots in the U.S. and the world, such as India, COVID-19 positive cases have seen a dramatic reduction with a consistent drop since February.

As a result, several European nations have begun laying out criteria for reopening. Greece recently lifted its ban on visitors from the United States if they provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of their arrival, and will start accepting visitors beginning May 15.

France and Spain announced plans to reopen to international visitors. And officials in the United Kingdom hope to restart some international travel by May 17. The European Union is making plans to reopen to U.S. travelers this summer.

“We should be leading,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association. “Airlines, airports … all these folks need to be able to prepare. What’s going to be required? We don’t want people to be scrambling.”

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Activists Fear HK Immigration Bill Will Allow Arbitrary Travel Bans | World News

HONG KONG (Reuters) – An immigration bill on Hong Kong’s legislative agenda for Wednesday would give authorities virtually unlimited powers to prevent residents and others entering or leaving the former British colony, lawyers, diplomats and rights groups say.

The government says the bill merely aims to screen illegal immigrants at source amid a backlog of asylum applications, and does not affect movement rights.

But lawyers say it empowers authorities to bar anyone, without a court order, from entering or leaving Hong Kong and fails to prevent indefinite detention for refugees.

The government, which has pushed Hong Kong onto an increasingly authoritarian path since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, faces no official opposition after democratic lawmakers resigned en masse last year in protest at the disqualification of colleagues.

Most prominent democratic politicians and activists are either in jail, charged under the security law or for other reasons, or in exile. Western countries, in response, have eased immigration rules for Hong Kongers and granted political asylum to several activists.

Lawyers and rights groups say the immigration bill gives authorities unbridled powers to impose “exit bans” such as those used by mainland China. Beijing denies accusations that the bans are a form of arbitrary detention.

“We have seen the way China has restricted people’s movement in and out of the country, suppressing activists and lawyers,” said Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer who is vice-chairwoman of Hong Kong Alliance, which champions democratic causes.

“They’re saying refugees are a target, but they’re expanding their power across all Hong Kong.”

Authorities in the United States and Europe have long required carriers to provide them with detailed passenger and crew information in advance of travel, under an international convention, and Hong Kong says it is merely following suit.

European Union directives, for instance, state specifically that authorities may not use the data to deny entry for any reason other than “preventing, detecting, investigating and prosecuting terrorist offences or serious crime”.

They also state that any decisions to restrict movement “shall in no circumstances be based on a person’s race or ethnic origin, political opinions, religion or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, health, sexual life or sexual orientation”.

The Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) said in February that Hong Kong’s bill, in contrast, confers “an apparently unfettered power” on the director of immigration “to prevent Hong Kong residents and others from leaving Hong Kong”.

It said the bill offered no explanation of why such a power was necessary or how it would be used, or any limit on the duration of a travel ban, or any safeguards against abuse.

The Security Bureau said the law would be applied only to inbound flights and target illegal immigrants, expressing disappointment at the “unnecessary misunderstanding” caused by HKBA.

In response, HKBA urged the government to clarify the limits of the bill.

But the Bureau last week said that freedom to travel was guaranteed by the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and its Bill of Rights, and this made it unnecessary to spell out in the bill that those rights would not be affected.

HKBA declined further comment. The Security Bureau referred Reuters to a statement last Friday describing the idea that the bill would deprive residents of travel rights as “complete nonsense”.

It said some organisations “have been attempting to spread rumours in emotional and hostile rhetoric, misleading the public with ill intentions and creating conflict in society”.

Lawyer Senia Ng said concerns about the bill were real and substantial because there was no specific wording to limit its scope.

Asian and Western envoys fear their citizens could be affected. “There is a deepening sense that something longer-term could be at work here and we are watching closely,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named.

If passed, potentially as soon as Wednesday, the bill could take effect on Aug. 1.

    Activists also say the bill raises concerns about refugee rights and well-being.

Among the changes, it allows immigration officers to carry guns and, in some cases, requires asylum seekers to communicate in a language other than their mother tongue.

The government says there are currently 13,000 claimants in Hong Kong and that the bill is aimed at tackling the backlog.

The screening process can take years and the success rate for claimants is 1%. During that period, it is illegal for asylum seekers to work or volunteer, and they live in limbo, on food vouchers.

Currently, asylum seekers can be detained only if they break the law or for deportation, and then for a period “that is reasonable in all circumstances”.

The bill removes the phrase “in all circumstances”, which rights groups say allows refugees considered a security risk to be detained indefinitely. The law does not state what constitutes such a risk.

“Even under the existing detention system there are already many unresolved issues, such as allegations of abuse,” said Rachel Li, policy officer at rights group Justice Centre.

“The bill is not in compliance with common law principles and international best practices.”

(Additional reporting by Greg Torode; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Kevin Liffey)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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Best of travel: Can hypnotherapy cure a chronic fear of flying?

With the end of travel restrictions on the horizon, we’re republishing some of the best travel stories from the last few years. Today we revisit Dougie Gerrard’s article exploring the burgeoning industry trying to cure our fears of flying.


I haven’t always been an anxious person. In fact, I was an utterly fearless child, with a predilection for dumb and dangerous stunts, like doing somersaults off the roof of our garden shed. I can’t identify exactly when my outlook shifted, but somewhere in the crucible of puberty and secondary school a profoundly neurotic fear of illness and death wormed its way into my psyche.

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I don’t somersault off sheds anymore, not since I discovered how fragile necks are. Every headache is now a potential aneurysm, every chest pain a myocardial infarction, and I once became briefly petrified that I had found a vast tumorous lump in my chest, only for it to turn out that I was actually fondling my rib.

My hypochondria is nothing, however, compared to the extremity of my fear of flying. I never enjoyed air-travel, but until three years ago I was able to grit my teeth and get through it without much complaint. I don’t know what changed, or why, but over the course of a summer what had previously been a minor neurosis suddenly metastasized into something wild and unmanageable.

Unfortunately, this happened just as I was preparing to begin a study abroad year in Austin, Texas. Over the next twelve months my aviophobia wreaked havoc: I missed around half a dozen flights, in the process running up a parental debt that I’ll probably be paying off for longer than my student loan. There are lots of tales I could regale you with from that year – the time I necked a whole bottle of St John’s Wort because I couldn’t find my Benzos, for instance – but for the sake of brevity I will limit myself to describing what I consider my magnum opus; a festival of stupidity and humiliation, spread across one ridiculous week in December.

It began during Thanksgiving, which I had arranged to spend in Seattle with a friend who was studying abroad in Vancouver. I missed my first flight – standard – but was able to get on one the following day, and spent a lovely week meandering around the Pacific Northwest. The real problem arose when my return flight left Seattle-Tacoma airport with me still lingering in the departure lounge. I was already exploring the outer edges of my student loan; if I booked and missed a third flight I wouldn’t have been able to afford my next term in Austin. My options almost exhausted, I booked the only remaining transport that would get me back in time for my exams: a sixty-six hour bus trip, taking me from the very top of America to a city close to its southernmost tip.

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On the face of it, this doesn’t necessarily sound so bad – trace the route on Google Maps, and it could be a wicked West Coast road trip. But I didn’t have any friends with me, I didn’t have any hot food or wi-fi, and the intricacies of my bus schedule (six inhumanly tight changes) didn’t allow for any breaks longer than an hour. I had Candy Crush and a novel I’d just finished and one episode of Football Weekly. It was, unquestionably, the worst three days of my life.

Of all the flights I took that year, only one was free from anxiety or fear. It was my final return flight to the UK, and I was acutely aware that my visa was expiring in a few days’ time. Keen not to become an illegal immigrant in the US, I took what I will describe only as an inadvisably large amount of Xanax; far more than I’d taken on any previous flight.

Initially, it didn’t seem to be working. But as the plane took off, I felt a glorious calm descend upon me, as if I were being floated back to London on an enormous fluffy cloud. This is great, I thought to myself. I love flying. And then I passed out, having finally found the Xanax dosage strong enough to counteract the amount of adrenaline coursing through my body. I don’t know much about the rest of the journey, except that at some point I must’ve been given my in-flight meal, because I woke up with melon all down my front.

Unfortunately, ingesting a medically dangerous amount of Xanax is not a long-term solution, and my aviophobia has if anything worsened since I returned from the US two years ago. Lately, I have been finding this situation almost unbearable, and so in an effort to remedy it I recently arranged a hypnotherapy session with James Mallinson, who co-runs the enormously successful therapeutic programme Fix My Mind.

At the centre of James’ therapeutic approach is a technique called Havening, which involves crossing your arms as if warding off a vampire, and then rhythmically rubbing them while intoning the name of the phobic emotion you are trying to purge. There is a dual theory behind Havening: first, it is intended to simulate the sensation of being hugged, making you feel warm and fuzzy and releasing lovely comforting serotonin into your brain. It is also supposed to unlink the subject of the phobia from the attendant phobic emotions, allowing you to observe your fear from the outside (and, presumably, see how silly it really looks).

Initially, Havening didn’t seem to be affecting me much, and eventually I started to wonder whether I was doing it wrong. It was only towards the end of the session, when James briefly hypnotised me, that I began to feel it working. Ordinarily, thinking about flying makes me intensely nervous, but under hypnosis I was able apprehend the feeling of flight from a position of extraordinary calm. At James’ command, I would imagine myself on planes, but without simultaneously imagining them exploding or crashing into buildings. It was a strange, de-centering experience; I suddenly felt very far away from my body, as if I were peering at it through the wrong end of a telescope.

Because I haven’t flown since our session, I don’t yet know whether the hypnotherapy worked. I deeply, profoundly want it to have, though I find it difficult to check my scepticism, having been burnt so many times. For his part, James seems pretty confident that he’s fixed me, even offering a 50 per cent refund if it fails.

Read more: ‘The restaurant world has changed forever’: how Simon Rogan conquered Covid

Even if I’m still unable to fly, having hypnotherapy did at least change how I think about my fear. The commonest refrain you hear about aviophobia is that it is illogical, the triumph of animal impulse over scientific rationality, but I’m no longer sure that’s entirely correct. It’s certainly true that you’re more likely to die falling out of your bed than on a plane, but stats like this don’t tell the whole story. As James pointed out to me, there is something profoundly, irreducibly weird about flying. It’s worth remembering that it’s only been a hundred-or-so years since the first successful flight; in little more than a century we have gone from gawping stupidly at the skies to hurtling through them at ridiculous speeds. Perhaps aviophobia is just our way of reckoning with the sheer psychic strangeness of this shift.

Ultimately, however, correctly understanding aviophobia isn’t especially important to me; the aim is to get rid of it, or at least to blunt it enough that I can always be confident of catching planes. There is a lot that I want to see in the world, and almost all of it requires flying. Plus, I’ve never been especially keen on Britain – I’ve always appreciated it most from a distance of a few thousand miles – and the idea that I will be marooned here for the rest of my stupid life is too depressing a prospect to bear. So let’s hope James has fixed me, and that Havening actually does work. But if you see a guy in the Heathrow departure lounge popping endless Xanax and furiously rubbing his arms, please be nice to him.

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Fear and loathing: How neighbour turned on neighbour in the N.W.T.’s first pandemic month

This story is part of a series marking one year of COVID-19 in the North.

The Northwest Territories can sometimes feel like one of the few places untouched by COVID-19.

Today, employment in the territory is rising, drinks are flowing at Yellowknife pubs, and many classrooms are just as tightly filled with children as before. But it wasn’t always this way.

In the pandemic’s first month, the N.W.T. was under some of the most restrictive health measures in the country. Residents were barraged by warnings from politicians and health officials that a single outbreak could welcome catastrophe.

It was during this time that health officials unveiled the ProtectNWT COVID-19 hotline, an anonymous tip line for reporting perceived violations of public health orders and guidelines.

CBC News has reviewed hundreds of complaints submitted to the territory’s COVID-19 compliance reporting hotline in the first month of the pandemic, between March 26 and April 21. 

The records show how fear of COVID-19 consumed many northerners — and drove hundreds to report their friends, colleagues, and even family members for even the most minor transgressions.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer for the N.W.T., speaking to reporters following the identification of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the territory. The same day, she announced the creation of the ProtectNWT tip line. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

‘Surge in demand’ days after tip line goes live

In late March, only one legally binding public health order was in effect — one requiring travellers to the territory, and returning residents, to self-isolate for 14 days.

Nonetheless, in the first few days after the tip line was announced, hundreds of residents reported neighbours for perceived violations as minor as “walking around town,” playing music, receiving a letter, or posting pictures taken outdoors on Facebook.

“I appreciate being able to make this report — and especially appreciate that I will not be named to the residents,” wrote one complainant.

In fact, by March 31, just a few days after the tip line came online, reports were already slipping through the cracks due to a “surge in demand,” as noted in one record.

A client of the Salvation Army in downtown Yellowknife was interrogated by health officials after an anonymous report, but was found to be trying hard to minimize risk. (The Salvation Army Yellowknife/Facebook)

Many of these early reports take on an ugly quality. There was a Yellowknife nurse who reported a neighbour for hosting “Asian tourists” later discovered to be essential workers. 

There was an anonymous report of a man failing to self-isolate, when he was merely staying in temporary housing at the Salvation Army after a move from Fort Providence. Officers interrogated him only to hear he was largely respecting the rules, even securing a COVID-19 test for a cough he picked up while on the street.

And in one report from April 5, Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, forwarded a report of a self-isolating woman who let her uncle, who lived “on the street,” enter her home. Investigators chastised the woman for allowing a visitor.

Contacted by CBC, Semmler said this complaint was one of many she heard from residents in the early days of COVID-19, which she forwarded on to ProtectNWT.

“That was the only thing we really had” to help calm constituents fearful of the disease, she said.

“In the beginning, I felt that people needed to know that there was somebody looking into protecting them,” Semmler said. “There was just so much fear.”

Business reported before it was built

Businesses were not spared suspicion. Within days of the chief public health officer advising businesses to take common-sense precautions against COVID-19, residents were reporting workers in Yellowknife, Fort McPherson, Hay River and Behchokǫ̀ for supposedly violating rules.

Public health officers almost invariably found they were simply catching up to changing guidelines.

One person reported the Yellowknife Walmart for inadequate COVID-19 prevention even after they began wiping down carts, installing plastic barriers, and enforcing physical distancing in the store.

Yellowknife’s Walmart was a frequent target of complaints, despite introducing several special measures to reduce the risk from COVID-19. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Another reported workers at the Independent grocery store for not changing their plastic gloves after each “potential contamination event.”

Yet another reported a mini-golf course in Fort Resolution — before it was even built.

Some complaints bordered on paranoia. One man spent 37 minutes on the phone with call centre workers, panicked about authorities’ recommendation to go “out on the land,” and worried that COVID-19 could have made it via wastewater into the lakes and rivers.

“The telephone conversation ended poorly,” the record notes.

Repeat violators issued verbal warnings

While many of the records detail reminders given to rule-breakers, a large number of complaints were found to be invalid, aimed at individuals who had reasonable exemptions or were already finished their self-isolation period.

Others were lodged against individuals who had never travelled, or had merely moved between N.W.T. communities. In many cases, it didn’t spare them calls and visits from investigators.

In cases where complaints were legitimate, officials often simply explained the rules again, a result of the emphasis on public education in guidelines given to public health officers.

Where repeat violators were openly disregarding the rules, however, those same officials often did little to stop them.

The local gas station in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., was the subject of one complaint. When ProtectNWT staff thought the manager wouldn’t send a sick worker home, they could only forward the complaint to the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission. (David Adamec/Wikipedia)

In one example, a new mother visited routinely with others in Ndilo and Dettah despite recently returning from medical travel in Edmonton. After three complaints, local leadership was on the phone with officials asking why she was still being allowed to travel freely throughout the community.

In response, workers issued yet another warning.

In another instance, a worker at the Behchokǫ̀ gas bar who was “constantly coughing” was deemed fit to work by the manager. When a health officer spoke to the manager, they were “not satisfied [they] will effectively resolve [the] concern” — but the most they could do was forward the complaint to the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC).

“Will there be a response from WSCC on matters like this?” the health officer wrote. The complaint was marked closed.

ProtectNWT staff involve RCMP

Several tips came from workers at the territory’s isolation centres, who warned of people checking out early or disappearing without a trace. Tracking them down sometimes occupied the rest of the traveller’s isolation period.

Other tips show the sometimes heavy cost of isolation for residents, with some breaking quarantine to check on people normally in their care, or even, in one case, being hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal while staying at a centre.

Health officials themselves were sometimes over-exuberant in policing public health orders, occasionally overstepping their authority or providing bad advice.

A worker at Chateau Nova hotel in Yellowknife drops off food to guests who were self-isolating. The reports detail how travellers broke quarantine on multiple occasions. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Staff in the Beaufort Delta warned residents of a “ban on mass/social gatherings” when it was still only a recommendation from the chief public health officer. One ProtectNWT employee even told someone if they saw their sister, who was under suspicion for recently travelling, they “must” report her and “provide all the details.”

Twice before April 11, when a public health order actually banned indoor gatherings, health officials called RCMP to conduct searches of sites where gatherings had been alleged to have taken place, including an isolation centre in Inuvik. In both cases, “no signs of gathering were present.”

By April 11, RCMP were “pretty touchy over the notion of helping with enforcement,” according to an internal email from Mike Westwick, head of COVID-19 communications at the time.

Public health order boosts complaints

When Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola made her April 11 order banning all indoor gatherings (and outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people), it was among the strictest in the country at the time, despite there being just a few active cases in the territory.

Overnight, the tone of calls changed, ProtectNWT records show. Nearly every tip was now about a party, card game, or other now-illegal gathering, and many more of them were anonymous.

Serious crimes were now being reported to the hotline, as well. Suspected drug use, family violence, and elder and child abuse feature heavily in reports from virtually every community. ProtectNWT records health officers mostly forwarding these reports to other agencies.

A public health order banning most gatherings supercharged complaints to the anonymous tip line. (Katie Toth/CBC)

A number of people in the reports demonstrated a general disregard for the public health measures. One person was accused of “sneaking” into the territory with a truck driver; another group of socializing in vehicles and bragging on social media about “getting away with breaking the law.”

Bootlegging complaints skyrocketed, with concerns about “a great deal of alcohol” entering multiple communities. The ATM in Colville Lake reportedly even ran out of cash when one bootlegger came into town.

“Caller believes RCMP will not do anything,” the report from Colville Lake reads. “I encouraged her to continue to report concerns … to the RCMP.”

Health workers refer illegal gatherings to police

Reports show residents across the territory voicing frustration with responses to illegal gatherings from ProtectNWT, and from outside agencies they frequently enlisted for help.

More than one record shows callers hanging up on ProtectNWT workers in anger when they said they could not immediately respond to a party next door. Multiple complaints were lodged about the same residences with increasing frustration as illegal gatherings continued unaddressed.

Multi-day parties at Yellowknife apartments, like Northview’s Sunridge Place, were often referred to landlords or RCMP to deal with. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Earlier in the pandemic, complaints about parties were forwarded to landlords, who had limited authority to act. Once gatherings were criminalized, the same reports went to the RCMP, which reports suggest often failed to respond. 

“RCMP pass it on to [the COVID-19] line saying they’re allowed to have visitors, they’re allowed to have [a] party??!!” one person wrote while lodging a complaint about illegal parties in four different Northview buildings in Yellowknife. “Housing passes it on to RCMP, [and] Northview is left to deal with it basically on their own.

“While it may be their security’s job, this Protect[NWT] line needs to do their job.”

Shouting matches and suspicion

Among these accounts of more serious infractions, residents continued to report the harmless activities of their neighbours. Cars and trucks with out-of-territory license plates were reported, as was an Easter mass in Inuvik, where parishioners met on an ice road and stayed inside their vehicles.

Shouting matches erupted in stores in Tsiigehtchic and Hay River as people accused each other of spreading the disease. A corner store was reported as “dangerous” for asking customers to use adjacent tills, and a van in Yellowknife drew one man’s ire for carrying seven passengers.

“If I am not allowed to do this, nobody should be,” the complainant wrote.

Places where people who experience homeless congregated, like Yellowknife’s only sobering and day shelter, pictured here, were frequently the subjects of reports. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Any group, from a quartet of young smokers to a bench shared by three people, was liable to generate a report — even though outdoor gatherings of under 10 people were still allowed.

Many complainants wondered why police and bylaw were not more involved in public health enforcement, especially regarding gatherings in areas frequented by people who are homeless.

One person even suggested police roam Fort Smith with a two-metre pole “showing clearly” what appropriate distancing looks like to those gathering on the street.

It’s important to remember that while, theoretically, any one of the people being reported could have carried COVID-19, none apparently did. The territory recorded just a handful of disconnected cases during this time, all related to travel, and by the end of April, it had successfully eradicated the disease.

Conrad Baetz, the Northwest Territories’ former deputy chief public health officer, speaks to a public health officer at a roadside photo op in April 2020. Many complainants asked why RCMP and local bylaw were not more actively policing residents for public health violations. (Katie Toth/CBC)

It is easy, in retrospect, to say that residents’ concern as expressed in these often panicked reports was misdirected or overblown.

But it is also worth noting that, at the time, health authorities were clear about just how little was known about COVID-19. Few known treatments were available. A vaccine seemed impossibly far off. And little was understood about how infectious it could be, for how long, or how lethal it was to those who contracted it.

How CBC obtained ProtectNWT records

These details are the result of a public documents request CBC made in the spring of last year.

Laws require the N.W.T. government to provide redacted documents within 30 days, but the Department of Health and Social Services argued it could not prepare the documents in time, as “diverting those essential resources … would compromise public health and safety.”

Despite the N.W.T. privacy commissioner ruling that excuse invalid, the department never gave timelines for providing the documents, and disregarded multiple emailed follow-ups. Other access to information requests were similarly delayed.

That did not change even when the government created a multi-million-dollar COVID-19 coordinating secretariat, which was intended partly to improve the department’s poor response to media requests.

In fact, though Sonya Saunders, the secretariat’s director, said the requests were in the “final review stages” in October, it was still a further 60 days — double the time provided for in law — before they were partially fulfilled.

In a review of the government’s actions last June, the privacy commissioner acknowledged that her options to force the government’s hand were “extremely limited and quite ineffectual.”

Today, a year after the pandemic was declared, the government still routinely bypasses timelines set out by law. A revamped access to information and protection of privacy (ATIPP) act, approved by MLAs nearly two years ago, is still not in effect.

A Justice Department spokesperson said the “majority” of those changes would be implemented by this summer. A new centralized ATIPP department has been handling all requests from March 1 of this year.

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