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What to know if you’re a Canadian stuck abroad amid the coronavirus outbreak

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WATCH: Travel tips for Canadians stuck abroad – Mar 18, 2020

Canadians around the world are scrambling to return home as the coronavirus pandemic leads to border closures — but many aren’t having much luck.

Several reports have emerged of Canadians having difficulty tracking down flights, or leaving countries amid already imposed lockdowns. There are about three million Canadians working and living abroad.

READ MORE: ‘Help us’ — Canadians stuck abroad ask the feds to send help amid coronavirus pandemic

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced widespread travel limitations for those trying to enter Canada as well. He urged Canadians to come home while the option still remains.

“Let me be clear: if you are abroad, it’s time for you to come home,” he said Tuesday outside his home in Ottawa, where he is currently in self-isolation.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau tells Canadians abroad it’s ‘time to come home’ – Mar 16, 2020

However, the prime minister also acknowledged that not all Canadians will be able to come home amid tightening borders around the world.

“I think it’s just realistic to know that there are some of them that will not be coming home in the coming weeks, but we will make measures available through Global Affairs Canada,” Trudeau said.

Here’s a look at what Canadians stuck abroad should know.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Mandatory quarantine in Philippines leaves Canadians trapped abroad

Rules for entering Canada

Only four Canadian airports — Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Vancouver International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and Calgary International Airport — are receiving international flights

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However, those flights are limited to Canadian citizens and permanent residents of Canada. Some exceptions will be made for aircrews, diplomats, immediate family members and U.S. citizens.

Anyone who is showing symptoms of the virus, such as a fever, a cough or breathing problems, will be barred from getting on a plane by air operators.

READ MORE: Trudeau closes Canadian borders to most foreign travellers amid coronavirus outbreak

Cancelled flights, wait times

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While Canadians are technically allowed to come into the country, many airlines are grounding flights. WestJet, for example, will be suspending international flights starting Sunday and only offering “repatriation flights in partnership with the Canadian government.”

Many Canadians have also reported technical issues or lengthy wait times amid the scramble to return.

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Canadian travel expert Natalie Preddie explained that the problem is tough to resolve.

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“If you can drive, drive. That is my number one piece of advice for those that are in the States,” Preddie said.

She noted that those having trouble getting through to airlines via phone or email should look for forms they can fill out on websites for refunds or credits.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Trudeau says House of Commons expected to reconvene for emergency measures

“That’s a lot easier than sitting on the phone,” she said, noting individuals who have flights more than 72 hours later should avoid calling airlines in order to help them deal with immediate flights.

Preddie also said Canadians should prioritize booking flights home, rather than looking for refunds or credits first.

Help for Canadians stuck abroad

A statement from Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Monday evening detailed the creation of the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad.

The program is for Canadians abroad directly impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Those using it can apply for an emergency loan of up to $5,000 to secure their return to Canada, as well as to “cover their life-sustaining needs” during the process.

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Champagne’s statement also said the government will provide additional support to Canadians who are unable to immediately return home through new “local and other organizational” partnerships and consular services.

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Preddie said the loan can cover anything from flight expenses to hotels and food.

The travel expert noted those stuck abroad should also register on the government’s website.

“This will help them get in touch with you, keep you updated on things as they rapidly change,” Preddie explained.

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Canadians stuck abroad who require the government’s support can contact their nearest consulate or Global Affairs Canada’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre at +1 613-996-8885 or email sos@international.gc.ca.

Concerns about medical assistance

Another difficult problem to solve is of Canadians stuck abroad and uncertain of how they will receive health care, said Dr. Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist and scientist with ICES and Public Health Ontario.

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“It’s a significant concern, especially if people haven’t bought travel insurance and if they end up getting severely ill and needing hospital care, those costs can be quite high,” Kwong said, noting there isn’t an easy solution for these individuals.

“Some of the same things apply, just to monitor symptoms,” he noted. “If you need health care, then you just have to go and get it, regardless of where you are.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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— With files from Global News reporter Emerald Bensadoun