Canadians abroad amid COVID-19 pandemic face an uncertain scramble to get home — or ‘hunker down’
|Toronto Star 15 Mar 2020 at 21:02|
Some scrambled to rebook tickets. Others are hunkering down for what might be a long haul in a strange place. And they all have questions about what happens next, as Ottawa warns Canadians around the world to get home while they still can amid the global spread of COVID-19 .
Those who coming back faced crowded airports and steep sticker shock for flights, and many had concerns about what sort of airport screening awaits them upon their return.
Others are stranded in Europe, the new hot zone for the virus, unable to get home amid escalating lockdowns there. Donna McInnis and Kevin Ball, from Nova Scotia, are in southern Spain, about an hour and a half from the city of Malaga.
The couple went there to escape the harsh Maritime winter, and because they have a son who lives in London, U.K., an easy visit under normal circumstances.
The Spanish government has ordered people in the country to stay at home, except to buy food and medicine, travel to work, health centres or banks, or to look after elderly or dependants.
They are “healthy, safe, comfortable” in an apartment with enough supplies to last the 15-day lockdown in Spain. But the “major anxiety is that we are not confident about being able to get home,” McInnis wrote in an email.
They have a flight booked for March 31, to London but it may “very well never get off the ground,” and would put them in London during “peak contagion” before their April 27 WestJet flight home.
“We are in our seventies. Once we leave this safe haven we will have to throw ourselves into the mêlée of taxis, buses, airports etc. and get home asap, then go back into quarantine,” McInnis added. “The uncertainty is what’s daunting.”
What’s more, her husband has a medical condition that will require an infusion in early May.
The couple contacted the government and received a generic and “not very helpful” message from Global Affairs telling them to register as Canadians abroad.
Also among those impacted are the parents of Lenore Zann, Liberal member of Parliament in the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester. Her mother Jan Zann, 81, and father Paul Zann, 88, are stuck in a small Spanish fishing village called Nerja.
Speaking to the Star Sunday, Zann said that after Canada issued its travel advisory and began urging Canadians abroad to come home, her parents began contacting their airline to bump up their flight and come back as soon as possible.
But Zann said they haven’t heard back from the airline and, even if they are able to get an earlier flight, they don’t know how they will get to the airport, which is two hours away. They don’t have a rental car and aren’t sure they would be able to get transportation.
“Everybody’s on lockdown and they don’t even know if they could get a cab,” said Zann.
For the moment, they are deciding to “hunker down” and, all things considered, are “pretty cheerful,” said the MP. There’s a grocery store across the street from her parents and they have their apartment until the end of the month.
Asked if her government needed to do more to support Canadians abroad, Zann said: “I think it’s all happening so quickly that we are dealing with things as they occur … We are following science, that’s the important thing. We are giving the best advice to people and trying to flatten that curve, as they say.”
But now that Canadians abroad may be facing barriers to returning home soil, “we may need to look at how to help people who are stuck in other places get back.”
Zann said she is relieved her parents are, for now, comfortable and safe, but she worries. Her father has diabetes and her mother has breathing issues.
“They are prime targets for this.”
Zann did receive a message from Global Affairs, stating that her parents should contact the Consulate of Canada in Malaga if they require emergency medical assistance.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is in self-isolation after his wife Sophie tested positive for COVID-19, told CTV’s “Question Period” on Sunday that new travel restrictions, including shutting the borders, might be declared to deal with the growing pandemic.
“We have taken some very strong measures and we are not taking anything off the table,” Trudeau said during the television interview. “We are looking daily at next steps that we might take or we should take, and those conversations continue.”
The government is also asking all Canadians who do make it back to self-isolate for two weeks.
Several travellers who arrived late last week or over the weekend told the Star there was a lack of screening at Pearson International Airport, upon their arrival, and no one asked them if they had symptoms.
Jennifer McCartney flew back from New York City on Friday afternoon, because she had a family emergency. She stepped off the plane to a “massive hall jammed with people” and did not get any instructions on self-isolating, although she’s now doing that.
“I saw the photos of what’s happening in U.S. airports, and it was nothing like that, it was not as serious, but when we landed I was actually shocked at how busy the customs hall was,” she said.
“To submit your customs declaration form you have to use a touchscreen computer. There was no sense that they’d been cleaned, there was no hand sanitizer, and just a super, super long line.”
When they checked her passport they asked if she’d been to China, Iran or Italy, but when she said no she went right through. “They’re not doing temperature screening or anything like that.”
Michele MacLean flew back from the Fort Myers, Florida, Sunday afternoon, days after the government’s first warning that all international travellers should self-isolate upon their return.
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Other than an announcement on the plane to identify yourself if you’ve been to China, there was no real screening done at the Nexus terminal, MacLean said.
“No piece of paper to tell you about self-quarantine, no nothing. It is ridiculous,” MacLean added.
“There was no directive, announcement or anything. Very disappointed in our officials making decisions.”
Chet Csaszar got back from a Las Vegas trade show at around 7 a.m. after he moved his flight up from Sunday, spending $800 out of pocket with Air Canada to make the change. The plane was full, with people who’d driven in from various locations around Nevada.
“We’re all in the same boat really, just trying to get home,” he said.
Csaszar, 29, said employees at Pearson were wearing masks and gloves, and he was given a pamphlet asking him to self-isolate and to contact public health. The screens at the airport also had coronavirus information.
“It wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be, it only took about 15 minutes to go through the line, it a little crowded obviously but it was just like the line normally,” he said.
He’s now confining himself to one room in the Toronto house he shares with his girlfriend and two others.
“I’ll be trying to get some work done, catching up on reading and playing some Nintendo,” he said.
But he’s worried a lot of people on the plane didn’t seem to understand that they’d have to self-isolate, or what that meant.
“They didn’t actually tell me verbally, and no sign told me to self-isolate, I only knew from having read the government’s travel website, and then getting the pamphlet.”
Asked why only travellers from Italy, Iran and China were getting additional airport screening, Canada’s public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters in Ottawa at a press conference Sunday that the government is no longer focusing on just those three areas, and that’s why they’re asking “basically every traveller from outside Canada to self-isolate.”
Guidance on that is “rapidly being implemented right now,” she said, and they are “updating the messaging,” including at airports.
A Pearson spokesperson said in an email that the airport is “working in close collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency to ensure that all proper measures are taken with all international arriving passengers,” and that the safety of passengers and employees is a top priority.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada is the lead agency” guiding the response to the pandemic, spokesperson Beverly MacDonald added.
Global Affairs Canada said in a statement Sunday evening that Canada has no current plans to repatriate Canadians from abroad. The statement urged Canadians to be aware that flights are being cancelled and borders closed around the world in response to COVID-19.
“We stand ready to provide consular services to Canadians to the extent possible, while respecting the decisions of local authorities as they manage this public health emergency. Some limitations may be in effect in some areas of the world,” the statement added.