Q&A: Why it is taking so long to rescue Canadians from Wuhan

 

OTTAWA -- With hundreds of foreign nationals flown out of Wuhan, China, over the last week by their home countries, politicians and people across the country have wondered why Canada is so far behind them in its own rescue efforts.

Canada's first flight to Wuhan was delayed by weather and Canadians aren't expected to fly out until Thursday night, local time, at the earliest.

The region has been under expanding quarantines since Jan. 23 as China tries to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Why is Canada taking longer than other countries to retrieve its citizens?

The United States flew three planeloads of Americans out of Wuhan in the last week, the last two having left China as recently as Tuesday, according to a statement by the U.S. State Department.

France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have also managed to repatriate at least some of their citizens from the quarantined city over the last week.

"If the Conservatives were in power those Canadians would already be back on Canadian soil," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in question period Wednesday.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu admitted her government had a "slow start" to organizing its flight to Wuhan.

The problem, according to officials, was a lack of information in the early days of the quarantine, which was exacerbated by the fact that Canada does not have a consulate in the area.

Few Canadians had registered with Global Affairs that they were in Wuhan before the outbreak, Hajdu said. 

As recently as nine days ago, the government thought only two Canadians wanted help getting out and figured it would be fastest and easiest to find room for them on the planes of other allied countries. 

But in the days that followed the government was inundated with more and more requests for help. Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne arranged for Canada to charter its own flight to evacuate citizens from Wuhan last week, but arrangements with Chinese officials have taken time.

With commercial airlines reassessing the financial sense of flights to and from China, Champagne and Hajdu have urged Canadians who can leave the country to buy tickets out as soon as they can.

Why doesn't Canada have a consulate in Wuhan?

There's no direct answer to that except that Canada does not have consulates in every city. Wuhan is the ninth-biggest city in China. The United States has seven consular posts in China, including one in Wuhan. Canada has five, with the closest to Wuhan about 850 km away by road in Shanghai. They're in four of China's five biggest cities, plus one in Hong Kong.

But while other countries had staff on the ground when the quarantine was put in place, Canada did not.

Canada has added consular services in Wuhan now and promises that Global Affairs has a better handle on the number of Canadians in the area and their needs.

Why hasn't the government committed to sending a second plane?

Though officials repeat daily how fluid the number of people who want to leave is, Champagne said about 370 have now asked for help and the government has 211 on its list for the first flight.

The government secured a second plane to pick up any Canadians left behind once it realized the magnitude of the demand. But Champagne hasn't committed to actually sending that second flight.

"My mission is only to make things as easy as possible for Canadians who want to get out," he said Wednesday.

Later in the day, he added that Canada had secured space on an American plane to take "a few dozen" more Canadians out a few hours after the Canadian charter leaves.

While the number of people saying they want to leave Wuhan is greater than the number of seats on the first flight, the government also expects about 20 per cent of expected passengers won't show when the plane does arrive, based on previous experiences with evacuations.

Why are evacuation flights only happening at night?

The airspace above Wuhan is closed and Chinese authorities are only offering small windows of time at night to foreign countries trying to retrieve their citizens.

During the day, the airspace is used to fly in food, as well as medical supplies and personnel, Champagne said.

That's why the original Canadian flight to Wuhan scheduled for Thursday morning, which was held up in leaving Vietnam by four hours, was put 21 hours behind schedule. When the plane missed its narrow window to fly into Wuhan, it had to be rescheduled for the following night. 

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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