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Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Rob Oliphant, seen here on June 7, 2019, asked all Canadians abroad to register with Global Affairs Canada so the government can communicate with them as the coronavirus pandemic develops and affects travel.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The federal government is urging Canadians abroad to come home on commercial flights while they still can, as it works on a longer-term plan to help citizens who are unable to return because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, is managing consular cases full-time as the government works to help bring home as many Canadians as possible. Speaking to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Mr. Oliphant reiterated the government’s message to Canadians abroad to return on commercial flights where they remain available and, if they can’t get out, figure out a plan to stay where they are.

"They’re going to have to understand that this is not a crisis in just the country they’re in or in Canada. This is a global crisis and their options to leave are diminishing every hour,” he said.

Mr. Oliphant asked all Canadians abroad to register with Global Affairs Canada so the government can communicate with them as the coronavirus pandemic develops and affects travel.

The government has organized a number of repatriation flights for Canadians who are stuck in countries where airspace and borders have closed. Flights left Morocco, Spain and Ecuador on Wednesday. The first of a series of Air Canada flights departed Peru on Tuesday, with others planned this week, and officials are working with local authorities in the country to co-ordinate air and bus transportation to help Canadians catch their flight.

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Additional repatriation flights are being planned for Canadians in other countries, but Mr. Oliphant cautioned that plans are changing by the hour so nothing is a guarantee.

Mr. Oliphant said the current repatriation flights differ from past efforts, such as the Canadian evacuation of thousands of citizens from Lebanon in 2006. For instance, he said, Canada has to get military permission from countries for commercial planes to enter their airspace. The planes are then required to land at military airports, as opposed to public airports.

Once a flight is approved, the Canadian government faces the hurdle of getting its citizens to the airport, which is becoming an increasing challenge as governments set their own in-country travel restrictions.

The government is also developing consular plans for Canadians who have to stay where they are because they can’t find a way home. For instance, officials are trying to secure hotels for stranded Canadians in Spain as the country closes accommodations over concerns about the spread of the virus.

Consular officials around the world are also working to help stranded Canadians obtain their medications and other necessities as they await their eventual return home.

Mr. Oliphant encouraged those who are unable to return to Canada to apply for a government loan of up to $5,000 to help cover emergency expenses and an eventual ticket home. Global Affairs Canada says 108 loans have been approved to date, with about 400 applications being processed.

As a United Church minister who has helped many people through life’s struggles, Mr. Oliphant said he feels emotionally equipped to cope with the heartbreaking nature of the consular file. But he admits he still feels the stress and anxiety of every Canadian who wants to come home right now.

“It doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t open my computer after 20 minutes away on a call and see a hundred more emails and I don’t want to cry."

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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