Why these Canadians living abroad have no plans to move home amid the coronavirus

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Separating facts from fiction on the Coronavirus
Head of clinical microbiology at the Saskatchewan health authority, Dr.Joseph Blondeau, helps us understand the truth about the coronavirus, and dispels some myths you might have heard – Mar 6, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

Living abroad during a global health crisis can create concerns about whether coming back home is the best option. 

For many Canadians who’ve spent years away, returning to North America amid the coronavirus outbreak may not be ideal, or even possible.

“I am not expecting Canada to fly people out anytime soon,” said Jason So, a Torontonian who has lived in Seoul, South Korea, for more than eight years. 

“I am more worried about flights being blocked for us to leave commercially or the costs associated with self-isolation for two weeks when — and if— I return to Canada,” he explained.

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Coming back to Canadian soil could risk his family’s health, and he doesn’t have a place to return to, said So, 34. 

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South Korea is one of the countries most impacted by the spread of the coronavirus (referred to officially as COVID-19), with more than 6,000 cases reported. 

Officials there have been praised for administering more than 140,000 tests for the virus, resulting in a low death rate and the number of cases dropping in the last few days. Although there’s been a comparatively high number of infections in South Korea, So says his day-to-day life in the country where he runs a restaurant hasn’t changed drastically.

“Seoul does not feel like it’s dangerous or a fearful place to be, it is very orderly and everyone is taking it one day at a time,” he said to Global News via e-mail. 

Canadian officials evacuated hundreds of its citizens out of Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, last month along with those on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan. When they returned all had to engage in a 14-day quarantine to ensure they posed no risk to the public. 

Returning back to Canada simply isn’t practical at the moment, but the mood in South Korea is one of concern, said So. 

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“Most busy and bustling places are very empty these days so the effects on retail and food and beverage is of great concern on top of all the health risks involved with this virus,” he said.

There has been xenophobia against Chinese people and some cafes are refusing customers from China, he said.

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“Expats are trying their best to avoid going out like most locals in Korea,” he added. 

As he runs a business in South Korea, his feelings on whether he wants to stay will be more dependent on whether he can withstand an economic downturn, he explained. “Or I could cut my losses and be home with family, where I obviously would feel safer,” he said. 

‘There’s no reason to come home’

Leora Courtney-Wolfman says she feels comfortable in Austria. Supplied by Leora Courtney-Wolfman. Supplied by Leora Courtney-Wolfman

Canadian Leora Courtney-Wolfman lives in Vienna, Austria, where there are currently 55 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. But what might be more concerning is the tiny European country borders Italy, where around 4,000 people have been infected and nearly 200 have died.

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“With being near Italy, the Viennese are kind of famous for being blase, very indifferent and not making a big deal about things,” said Courtney-Wolfman, 35. 

Many seem fairly tense and hand sanitizer is being marked-up in stores. But overall, most are calm, she explained. However, the side of the country that’s closer to Italy may be behaving differently, she added.

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To those in Vienna, Italy seems as far away as Vancouver does for Torontonians, she explained. 

Originally from Toronto, Courtney-Wolfman has lived in Vienna for seven years and works as a demographic researcher. She has no plans to return to Ontario amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“There’s no reason to come home. I’ve been following the story in Toronto out of interest … It seems they’ve developed a response plan after SARS that’s doing well,” she said.

“We will have to see what happens in Vienna. It’s a great city to live in, but there’s a lot more people in all of Europe in a much smaller space than Canada.”

One positive about living in Austria, as opposed to Canada, is that the work culture has always encouraged employees to stay home if they are sick, she said. 

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“If you have a mild headache or cough, you’re not going to come into work for a few days … there’s no pressure,” she said. 

“People are less worried because if you’re sick, you don’t see anyone until you’re better. A lot of Canadian cities, you feel guilted into coming into work,” she explained. 

Travel plans haven’t changed

In Germany, there are 349 reported cases of the new coronavirus, which was a steady increase from less than 250 in early March. 

Kevin Caners, originally from Brockville, Ont., has called Berlin home six years and says the extent of the coronavirus impact is starting to feel more omnipresent. 

“It depends a lot on your particular community. The general [mood] is a little on edge or expectant, there’s definitely been shortages all over the city,” he said. Products like pasta, rice and flour have been sold out across Berlin, he explained. 

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Caners says he and his girlfriend just bought tickets to come home to Canada for a short visit this June. Those travel plans were on his agenda before the virus, he explained.

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Photo by: Christina Peters

Kevin Caners says he plans to come back to Canada on a planned vacation there. Photo by: Christina Peters.

“I’m personally dreaming, hoping, expecting that it will eventually blow over. I have no actual idea, but I have a hunch eventually it will blow over,” he said.

“I’m 34, so I’m not in the high at-risk community or demographic, so that plays into it. If I was older or had health complications, I’d be much more concerned.”

‘Everyone is working together’

After living in South Korea for nearly two years, Evan Przesiecki says he’s not overly concerned about his safety in the country. 

He teaches English in Seoul, South Korea, and has returned to Canada once in 2018 for the Christmas holidays.

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The government is taking the necessary precautions and public schools across South Korea have closed to encourage teachers and students to stay at home,” he said.

“Above this, workers like myself are still being paid during this unexpected time off, so financially things are sound too.”

Even though South Korea has faced other outbreaks like SARS and H1N1, like many other countries, the current scenario seems unprecedented, he said. 

“People are avoiding mass gatherings, like going to the movies … it’s a shame. Right now is usually a great time for tourism,” he said.

“But now everyone is working together to ensure that we control this situation as quickly as possible.”

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Friends and family in Canada have asked Przesiecki if he’s nervous about the virus since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, he said. But the Korean government’s response has made him feel fairly comfortable where he is, he explained. 

“I worked very hard to get my job here in Seoul, and I do have my life here at the moment. Korea has been so welcoming and good to me,” he said.

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“It’s hard to just say I’ll drop a place I very much considered home at the moment when there are so many uncertainties.”

Living in Seoul as opposed to Daegu — the centre of Korea’s outbreak — has given Przesiecki some distance from the majority of those infected, he said. 

Regardless of where you live, be informed of this virus, he said. 

“It’s very important that everyone educates themselves about the situation and not to spread fear,” he said.

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