Canada’s decision to abruptly suspend direct passenger flights from India and Pakistan has left citizens of all three countries scrambling.
Some are trying to find flights that connect through a third country, despite Canada’s requirement that people who travel such routes must obtain a negative COVID-19 predeparture test from the last country they were in before arriving in Canada.
Others are delaying travel, waiting for the 30-day ban to lift, while struggling with separation from family.
Manikaran Singh went to India to visit his ailing grandmother on April 15. He is desperate to get back to Canada in early May in time to apply for permanent residency under a new program that opens May 6 for international students. He needs to be physically in Canada to apply and is worried he will miss out on one of the 40,000 spots available.
He had been in India for only a day before last Thursday’s announcement of the ban. Since then, he’s exploring every travel route he can think of to get back to Brantford, Ont.
“I came up with the plan to travel to Qatar for a couple of days and get the COVID-19 test from there, so I booked the flight from Delhi to Doha and Doha to YYZ [Toronto], but that failed too because now Qatar has tourist restrictions,” he said.
Now he is considering whether to fly via Mexico, where there are no COVID-19 travel restrictions. He, like many others, has been searching for answers on Facebook groups.
“I have to get back to Canada. All my payments like my rent, phone bills ... roughly cost me like $2,000 a month and if I don’t get back there, I won’t make any money,” he said.
Ottawa’s decision to ban passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days amidst the resurgence of COVID-19 case counts in India and concerns about the B.1.617 variant left many on both sides of the world in limbo. The announcement came shortly after India had reported a global record of more than 314,000 new infections in the previous 24 hours.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that while only 1.8 per cent of all air travellers entering Canada are found to be COVID-19-positive, federal data show people travelling from India made up 50 per cent of all positive tests.
Last week, British Columbia confirmed 39 cases of the B.1.617 variant, which was first detected in India. On Friday, Ontario reported 36 cases of the variant, and Alberta and Quebec have each reported one case of the variant.
Sudheer Kumar booked his flight from New Brunswick to Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India, three months ago to visit his paralyzed father. Mr. Kumar came to Canada early last year, before the onset of pandemic, for his IT job. He has been feeling isolated.
“I thought I’ll take this short break and be relieving mentally from this loneliness and as well as helping my parents,” he said. “Things would have been normal, but all of sudden everything is just upside down.”
Hameed Ali hasn’t seen his wife and two young daughters for almost two years. The 38-year-old cook in Revelstoke, B.C., had been looking forward to May 8 when his family was coming to visit.
“It’s so, so hard. I was preparing mentally and physically to welcome them,” he said. “It’s a heartbreaking thing.”
Mr. Ali applied for permanent residency in December, 2019, and hasn’t been able to visit his family because of travel restrictions. He is concerned about their safety in India.
“I’m not getting deep sleep for so many months. I’m not happy and sometimes feel so bad being alone for such a long time.”
Vancouver resident Anirudh Sehgal was originally scheduled to leave for New Delhi with his wife and four-year-old son on April 22. They were denied boarding because he did not have a COVID-19 test result for his young son, though both Mr. Sehgal and his wife had tested negative. They were travelling to attend a close family function and wanted their son to see his grandparents for the first time in two years. Mr. Sehgal rebooked for April 24.
Hours before his travel, he received the notification of his flight cancellation.
“I am trapped in many ways. I’ve spent so much money on my bookings with Air Canada and my tests, that I don’t have enough resources to even book any extra trip.”
Neerja Sheetal, 60, and her husband, Ashwini, became permanent residents of Canada in 2019 and made what they hoped would be a final trip to Amritsar in the state of Punjab in early 2020 to tie up loose ends before returning to their new home. Mr. Sheetal unexpectedly died on that trip and, as the pandemic interrupted global travel, Ms. Sheetal’s children scrambled to find a flight for their mother to return to Canada. She flew back in September, with her affairs in India still unsettled.
This past February, she returned to India to make arrangements to sell off her assets and to perform postdeath rituals for her husband. She booked a ticket via Qatar to return to Canada on May 10 and her children are worried that new restrictions might mean their mother might not reach Canada safely. Her daughter, Chetna Chauhan, said the federal government needs to set up a hotline to answer the many questions she has.
“Will she be allowed to board a flight from Qatar, if she tests positive? What if she is asked to quarantine in Qatar? Who is going to bear those expenses?” asked Ms. Chauhan, who lives in Mississauga. “God forbid, if she tests positive, will she be asked to go back? She has issues with language; is there someone to assist her?”
With a report from Marieke Walsh
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