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Will travel insurance cover coronavirus? Experts break down why and why not

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

The decision to travel amid a viral disease outbreak can be harrowing, but that’s what purchasing travel insurance is for — right?

According to experts, it depends on when.

The general consensus is that the coronavirus will be covered by travel insurance providers as long as the insurance was purchased prior to a government “no non-essential travel” or “do not travel” advisory.

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John Shmuel, managing editor at Lowestrates.ca, said that whether or not insurance will cover disease outbreak is less about the coronavirus itself being covered, as much as it is the conditions surrounding when a person is travelling — in this case, flying to a country for which the Government of Canada has issued a travel advisory, specifically China.

Coronavirus outbreak: China health officials say virus death toll has risen to 490
Coronavirus outbreak: China health officials say virus death toll has risen to 490

“It’s not coronavirus that’s being covered per se, it’s any medical emergencies,” he said.

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“If you’re buying travel insurance right now, most consumer policies will deny you because there is an advisory in place.”

Shmuel said a variety of consumer policies include epidemics and pandemics, provided consumers purchase insurance before they happen.

Those looking to purchase travel insurance after the government advisory change may be out of luck.  However, “if you bought your insurance before this outbreak happened, before the advisory, and you get sick, then your insurance company will cover it, they’ll cover your treatment there, and they’ll likely fly you back home,” Shmuel said.

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He added that trip cancellation insurance, which often goes hand-in-hand with travel insurance, could save someone thousands of dollars on typically non-refundable flights with major airlines.

READ MORE: Canadians in China encouraged to fly out while commercial options exist: Champagne

In February, the Canadian government updated its China travel advisory, urging Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel in and out of the country.

In the province of Hubei, the advisory was updated to “avoid all travel,” including the cities of Wuhan, Huanggang and Ezhou, due to the imposition of heavy travel restrictions in order to limit the coronavirus from spreading.

The Canadian government said many of the initial cases of the disease outbreak were linked to the Huanan Seafood Market (also known as Wuhan South China Seafood City and South China Seafood Wholesale Market). The market was closed Jan. 1 for cleaning and disinfection, but the source of the virus is still unknown.

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Chinese health authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the disease could be spread from human to human and that transmission is occurring, but it is unclear how easily the virus is transmitted between people.

So far, the latest figures show 24,642 cases and 493 deaths.

Novel coronavirus: Travel bans, quarantines rise amid global outbreak
Novel coronavirus: Travel bans, quarantines rise amid global outbreak

Anne Marie Thomas, an insurance expert with Insurance Hotline, told Global News there are many reasons an insurer wouldn’t cover disease outbreak following a ‘do not fly’ travel advisory, but it boils down to this: anybody travelling once a travel advisory is in place is making a choice to proceed to an area in which they could get sick.

“Travel insurance is designed to protect you from unexpected or unanticipated illness or delays,” she said. ”

If there is a travel advisory in place, it’s not going to be something that’s unexpected, like if you get sick over there or if your flights get cancelled.”

To her knowledge, Thomas said there are no “cover-all” insurance policies that will waive a government travel advisory. Those required to travel for work purposes, like diplomats or medical officials, for example, could have specialized insurance provided through their employers that would cover the viral outbreak.

Could the coronavirus affect your finances?

Thomas said the coronavirus could have “an extremely detrimental effect” on a person’s finances if they were to get sick abroad without already-purchased travel insurance.

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Hospital and ambulance bills, medication costs and flights could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in certain countries.

“A simple hospital stay, if you think about it even in the U.S., if you had a hospital stay with tests and medications, that could be tens of thousands of dollars for one day,” she said.

“You pay a little bit of money to purchase a travel insurance policy and that protects you financially from potential devastation.”