Checking the phone first thing in the morning has become a new routine for Cici Liang, who was born and raised in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus that has infected thousands and killed more than 100 people in China.
Ms. Liang, a Canadian who lives in the Vancouver area, said family members – including her mother, grandmother, and many others living in Wuhan – stay in their homes every day, feeling anxious. The city of 11 million has been locked down since last Thursday.
“Some of their co-workers or friends have been infected,” she said. “I am very worried. Besides sleeping and cooking, I am always on my phone.”
The new virus, Wuhan 2019-nCoV, emerged last December in China. But Chinese health authorities didn’t confirm it can be transmitted from person to person until Jan. 20, days before the Lunar New Year celebrations, when many overseas Chinese visit their hometowns.
Some Canadians born in Wuhan went ahead with their trips because Chinese authorities had said earlier that there was “no clear evidence” of person-to person transmission. However, the virus was already spreading, and some are now trapped, with travel in and out of the region shut down.
Holiday travellers are among 250 Canadians in Hubei province who have registered with Global Affairs in China. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said on Tuesday 126 have asked for assistance.
“We’re trying to contact everyone, assess their specific needs for assisted repatriation,” the minister said. He declined to say whether Canada is considering an airlift. He did not rule it out, noting the government is “consulting with our allies and looking at the different options that people are considering, also in contact with the Chinese authorities.”
Han Meijie said his parents flew to Wuhan for the holiday on Jan. 10 after Chinese officials said the virus was “preventable and controllable.” But the situation took a sharp turn days later.
“I didn’t think it was that severe until I heard about the lockdown,” he said. “My heart flipped."
He said his parents, both 58, planned to return to Canada on Feb. 8, but their flight was cancelled.
“Now, they’re stuck,” he said, adding that both are healthy and staying indoors unless they need groceries. But Mr. Han said he worries about his father, who has hypertension and diabetes.
Every day, he said, he pays close attention to updates. So far, the virus has infected nearly 6,000 and killed at least 132 in China.
“I just hope that those people are not my parents, nor my other family members.”
Several countries, including the United States, France and Japan, plan to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. Mr. Han says he hopes Canada will follow suit: His mother is Canadian.
“I am disappointed that the Canadian government hasn’t done anything … [I am feeling] helpless.”
Henry Zou’s wife, who is a Canadian, is also stuck in Hubei. Mr. Zou said he and his wife were “seriously misled” by the information that the virus wasn’t transmittable. His wife returned to Hubei in mid-January. Mr. Zou too urged the government to bring its citizens home, especially after seeing the surging numbers of infected and deceased in the past few days.
“Overseas Chinese are facing huge risks, especially the elders,” he noted. “I hope Canada can be responsible for their citizens, just like some other countries.”
Mr. Zou said he was extremely anxious in the days after news of the outbreak shook the world. However, he said he is feeling a bit more peaceful and tries to keep from being overwhelmed with reports about the virus.
“It’s not good to look at too much information about it. I still need to take care of our family here, and I cannot [afford] any breakdown.”
So far, three cases in Canada have been confirmed, two in Toronto and one in the Vancouver area. Canadian health authorities believe the risk of the virus spreading here remains low.
But many Chinese-Canadians are skeptical. They question whether the country has enough medical supplies and personnel if the virus does break out here.
“Do we have the ability to handle a sudden crisis?” said Banderaz Cheng, whose parents live in Wuhan.
Suggestions from Chinese officials that the new virus could spread before symptoms show have intensified the fear, prompting calls for everyone returning from China to be quarantined for about 14 days, which is considered the maximum incubation period for most coronaviruses.
But B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, said on Tuesday that there has been no evidence to support such statements.
Ms. Liang said some of her friends and acquaintances who have returned from Wuhan or other parts of China are isolating themselves for about two weeks.
“This is showing respect to yourself and the society,” she said.
With help from friends, Ms. Liang and Mr. Cheng have collected about 2,000 masks for front-line medical staff in Wuhan.
“We can only try our best and do not know what else we can do,” she said. “I can only pray, hoping this can be over as soon as possible.”
With a report from Kristy Kirkup