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Canadians prepare for evacuation from China amid coronavirus concerns: ‘It’ll be nice to go home’

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A chartered plane that’s to airlift Canadians from the centre of the coronavirus outbreak is on its way to China, where an Alberta man who is stranded in Wuhan because of a lockdown there said he is looking forward to going home.

Carter Perrier, 30, received instructions from the federal government stating a plane to bring Canadians home will leave Wuhan Thursday morning local time.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the flight will wait in Vietnam for final permission from Chinese authorities to land in Wuhan, an area quarantined to contain an outbreak of a new coronavirus that has killed more than 400 people there.

The plane will be ready to leave hours after it receives the final go-ahead from China, likely sometime Wednesday, he said.

Coronavirus outbreak: Health Minister says ‘it would be best’ for Canadians to return from China
Coronavirus outbreak: Health Minister says ‘it would be best’ for Canadians to return from China

RELATED: Albertan in Wuhan copes with travel ban, awaits details of evacuation plan

It will arrive at CFB Trenton on Thursday morning, and travellers will be quarantined at the military base east of Toronto for a two-week period.

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“It’s great. We’re not allowed to bring a whole heck of a lot of luggage so it’s not ideal,” Perrier said. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to live for two weeks out of a single carry-on bag but I guess I’ll make it work.”

“It’ll be nice to go home.”

Instructions from the federal government state that not everyone who is eligible for a seat will be able to board the plane due to demand.

Though the numbers change by the hour, Champagne said as of Tuesday 308 Canadians have asked for help to leave the country but the plane has room for only about 250 passengers. They are being told to arrive at the airport Wednesday evening.

Toronto-area father, Richard Fabic, received an email on Tuesday from Global Affairs that said his 15-month-old daughter, Chloe, and his in-laws have been shortlisted for the flight.

Fabic and his wife left his daughter with the child’s grandparents while Fabic moved the family from their home in Ontario to Victoria, B.C., where is wife is currently working.

He told Global News he was in disbelief when he read the email.

“When I opened my email and saw the response from Global Affairs, I opened it and there was that disbelief — am I sleeping am I dreaming?” he said.

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“I was really happy and the first thing I did was call my wife and did a virtual high-five.”

READ MORE: Canadians in China advised to prepare for evacuation this week as coronavirus spreads

Carter Perrier as seen on Jan. 30, 2020.
Carter Perrier as seen on Jan. 30, 2020. Courtesy/Carter Perrier

Travellers must make their own arrangements to get to the airport, which include checkpoints starting three kilometres from the airport.

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Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government must be “realistic,” about the difficulties families will face in reaching the airport in time.

“The city is under heavy quarantine, including police officers or security outside of buildings to prevent people from coming or going without having any sort of clarity about where they’re going,” Hajdu told reporters Tuesday.

“So we are working very closely with these families in terms of how they’ll navigate their way across this very large city.”

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The federal government has provided a letter to Canadians to facilitate their clearance through the checkpoints. The Canadian Press obtained a copy of a letter, which said “Chinese authorities will perform health screening and immigration controls before boarding the flight.”

READ MORE: Defining common terms used to explain the new coronavirus illness

Those with symptoms of the coronavirus will not be allowed to board the plane, and travellers will be required to submit a medical and fitness screening form before boarding.

The letter also says that people should “expect delays” as the check-in experience for the flight will be “significantly different” from what they are used to.

“We recommend you bring some food and water for you and your family for the time you are at the airport waiting to depart,” it says.

“You will not be able to take the food on the plane.”

Lie Zhang, a permanent resident, and Canadian citizen Megan Millward, speaking to Global News via Skype from China.
Lie Zhang, a permanent resident, and Canadian citizen Megan Millward, speaking to Global News via Skype from China. Skype

Montreal’s Megan Millward, who was visiting her in-laws at a small village in Hubei with her husband and two children, said they received the emailed letter from the government.

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“It said we were shortlisted for spots on the flight, but not guaranteed to actually get those spots,” she said.

Millward’s husband, Lie Zhang, is a permanent resident but has a Chinese passport, and they were told he would be barred by China from leaving Hubei with the rest of his family.

“We called the emergency hotline in Ottawa to ask them, and they said only the three citizens,” Millward said.

But then the family heard parents of children who are citizens would be allowed on the plane. They still don’t know if Zhang will be allowed and likely won’t find out until they are at the airport.

“We’ve been trying to campaign to get him to be allowed to go with us,” Millward said.

“The only difference between permanent residents and Canadian citizens is they don’t have a passport and they aren’t allowed to vote. But they pay the same taxes, they follow the same laws, they contribute to Canadian society in the same way, so it’s pretty unfair.”

READ MORE: Could the new coronavirus go from epidemic to pandemic? Here’s what that means

Canadian officials said they would be trying to keep families together as well as raising the issue with the Chinese government.

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The government has already made arrangements to send a second chartered plane to Wuhan if there are enough Canadians left behind, but Champagne and Hajdu would not say how quickly that flight would follow the first.

Millward and Zhang hope if he can’t get on the first flight, he will make it on the second.

“Having him show up a couple days later would be way better than having him stuck here for who knows how many months.”

Meanwhile, Perrier isn’t concerned about not making the first flight.

“If there’s people Canada has deemed more important than me to get home — whether that be women, children, people with families that are stuck in Hubei province currently — I think that’s more important that they get out,” he said.

When travellers arrive at CFB Trenton, there will be representatives from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Red Cross on hand. The evacuees will undergo regular health check-ups during the two-week quarantine.

Perrier said he isn’t looking forward to the quarantine but he knows it is important.

READ MORE: Canadians describe life in China during coronavirus outbreak

“I understand the precautions you need to undergo as a country to protect your citizens at home from a potentially unknown virus and we don’t know how it’s going to spread,” he said.

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“As much as I don’t like it, I think it’s a good idea and I guess we’ll see how Trenton is.”

Millward said the idea of being quarantined with two young kids is daunting, but she hopes families will be able to stay together.

“The social isolation is a bit concerning,” she said.

“Fourteen days in a room with your kids, especially if there’s only one of you…” she said, trailing off while letting out a sigh of frustration. “I don’t know what to say about that. But of course it’s worth it, in the interests of ensuring no one transmits the disease.”

Wuhan in central China is considered the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and is home to roughly 11 million people. It and surrounding cities are in lockdown as Chinese officials grapple with the spread of the virus.

A resident wears a protective mask as he rides a motorbike in the street on Jan. 31, 2020 in Wuhan, China.
A resident wears a protective mask as he rides a motorbike in the street on Jan. 31, 2020 in Wuhan, China. Getty Images

About 50 million people in total are in the quarantine zone.

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According to the Chinese government, the number of confirmed cases surpassed 20,000 in mainland China with 425 deaths, as of Feb. 4.

Roughly 180 cases of the virus have been confirmed in other countries.

Canada has seen five confirmed cases: three in Ontario and two in B.C.

— With files from Amanda Connelly, Abigail Bimman, Erica Vella and Rachel D’Amore, Global News; and Hina Alam and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press