From the Philippines to Peru, scores of Canadians who are worried they’ll be stranded abroad for weeks, or even months, as countries close their borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do more to help bring them home.
Toronto resident Lauren Ianni, 30, spoke to Global News from the town of Cusco in the Peruvian Andes, where she and hundreds of Canadians are currently stuck after Peru issued a nationwide state of emergency declaration, effectively stopping people from travelling in or out of the country.
“We are just scared and hungry,” Ianni said.
“Every day, I wake up waiting for something to be solved, but that doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen.”
Ianni is confined to a hotel with her American boyfriend where there are concerns people may run out of food as movement inside the country has been limited under martial law to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The couple travelled to Peru last Thursday after getting confirmation from their tour company that they were safe to go before travel advisories were issued. On Sunday, the company announced mid-trip that the tour was cancelled, and later that evening, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra announced the country was closing its borders.
She and other Canadians who contacted Global News say they’ve received little to no help from Global Affairs and that they haven’t been able to reach staff at the consulate in Lima, Peru. A Facebook group for Canadians stranded in Peru now has over 500 members.
“Nobody has actually followed through with anything or provided any information,” Ianni said. “I have even heard the American embassies and others, they’re really talking about sending a plane for their citizens.
“I just have not heard anything about Canada,” she said. “And that’s kind of shocking to me because there are so many of us here. I don’t know; I would think that it would be important to them.”
Margaret McKellar, who is stuck in Cusco with her 15-year-old daughter, said Canada should follow the lead of other countries, like Israel, that have sent flights to help rescue stranded travellers.
“The only way we can get home is for our government to co-ordinate that. It’s really frustrating and it feels like we aren’t a priority at all.”
McKellar said people are beginning to run out of critical medication and that police were entering hotels searching for tourists who have a fever.
She is worried Canadians may be stuck in the country until May or later. She said the federal government’s promise of a $5,000 emergency loan isn’t helpful for Canadians stuck overseas if there are no flights leaving the country.
“There is panic starting to set in,” she said. “We are hearing rumours there is a military lockdown and we aren’t even allowed out to buy groceries. There is no one to contact for information.”
Trudeau has said there are about three million Canadians working and living abroad at any given time and that many of them will be stranded as borders close and airlines ground planes.
“We’re going to work very, very hard to bring Canadians home,” Trudeau said Thursday. “I spoke yesterday with the heads of our two large airlines at WestJet and Air Canada to talk about how we can work with them to ensure that there are flights to bring Canadians home. We will continue to respond to the overwhelming demand by Canadians for support.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Thursday that consular support is being provided to people in Peru and Morocco and urged them to keep trying to get in touch with Canadian diplomats there.
“We are working urgently to find a way to help those people come home,” Freeland told reporters. “It’s a very complex situation. We understand how frightening it is for people. And we’re working to get through it.”
Global Affairs said it has received over 4,400 calls and more than 5,500 emails related to COVID-19.
“We are doing everything to provide assistance under these unprecedented circumstances,” Global Affairs said in a statement.
“Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance from anywhere in the world can call the 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at +1 613-996-8885 or email email@example.com,” the statement said. “Due to the high volume of requests, we are working as fast as possible to respond to Canadians.
The department encouraged travellers to sign-up with the Registry of Canadians Abroad to receive important updates.
“Some countries have put measures in place including closing land borders and shutting down their airspace. In some cases, measures taken have led to the complete cancellation of flights,” Global Affairs said.
“These instances could well mean that Canadians will not be able to return home for an indeterminate period of time.”
The situation for Canadians stranded in Asia and Africa is also troubling.
Toronto resident Melissa Woolfson and her boyfriend, Devin, are stranded in the Filipino city of Bacolod after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced an executive measure quarantining everyone in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We are essentially stuck here,” Woolfson said early Wednesday.
In Morocco, Canadians Susan Simon and her best friend Lillian Pajic are unsure of when they might return home.
“I am scared right now because things are shutting down, and if things shut down, then what?” Simon told Global News. “We get some false hope, and then it shuts down again. I just, I just can’t keep up. I’m like an emotional roller-coaster.”
B.C. resident Oliver Chapman is also stuck after travelling to the island of Panglao in the Philippines last week. He said local travel restrictions mean he might not be home until mid-April.
“It is a bit of a ghost town in this part of the Philippines,” he said. “I’m a little frustrated because, basically, it is supposed to be just a quick two-and-a-half-week trip and it is turning into an almost two-month trip. Nobody really knows what’s going on.”
For Ianni, she said it’s important people understand that many people who are stranded went abroad before Canada’s travel restrictions were announced.
“I feel like a lot of people think it’s our fault for being here. But people have to have that empathy because what if it was one of their family members?” she said. ”I don’t think anyone deserves to be in this situation at all. It’s a horrible situation.”
— With files from Global News’ Jamie Maraucher, Megan Turcato and Morganne Campbell