British Columbia

Flight ban leaves B.C. residents stranded in India amid COVID-19 crisis

Canada's suspension of passenger flights from India and Pakistan has left some Metro Vancouver families in limbo.

Infectious disease specialist says he's skeptical the flight suspension will be effective

Ambulances carrying COVID-19 patients line up waiting for their turn to be attended at a dedicated COVID-19 government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Thursday. The Canadian government has suspended passenger flights from India and Pakistan because of a surge in cases. (Ajit Solanki/The Associated Press)

Canada's suspension of passenger flights from India and Pakistan has left some Metro Vancouver families in limbo.

Nineteen-year-old Kajol Johal learned of Thursday's announcement of a 30-day ban from the federal government just hours after she arrived in northern India's Punjab province to visit her sick grandmother.

"There was no warning. I know that I wouldn't have gotten on my flight even if I knew a couple of hours before that there was potential for a ban," the Delta resident told CBC News.

Johal said she only booked off 10 days from work to make the trip, and will now have to start the next term of her university studies using her grandparents' spotty internet connection.

"It's obviously stressful because … I'm not home. I don't feel safe being here," she said.

Canada's ban came in response to a massive spike in COVID-19 numbers in India and acute shortages of beds, staff and oxygen supplies in the country's hospitals. A new COVID-19 variant, B1617, has been detected there and experts say it could be behind the surge.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday that while only 1.8 per cent of all air travellers entering Canada are found to be COVID-19-positive after mandatory testing, people travelling from India accounted for about half of those positive cases.

The flight ban means that Surrey resident Mohit Dhanju's father is now stuck in India after visiting on a business trip.

"I talk to him in the morning, I talk to him in the evening, I tell him don't see anyone — just do the maximum business over the phone," Dhanju told CBC News.

The situation that feels a bit like deja vu for Dhanju. Last year, his wife and daughter were also stranded in India when the country went into lockdown.

"We are hoping that the flights resume next month," he said.

Mohit Dhanju's father is currently stuck in India. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Srinivas Murthy at the University of B.C. said border control measures can be helpful in containing the spread of disease, but the B1617 variant is already spreading through Canada, so the cat is out of the bag.

"But there are other things we can do at the border, such as a more enforced mandatory quarantine, which we haven't really been doing well over these past number of months," he said.

Murthy pointed out that an earlier ban on flights from the U.K. did very little to prevent the B117 variant from spreading.

He said his biggest concern is how Canada can help the people of India during this crisis.

"Obviously it's a worst-case scenario and probably the worst situation we've seen anywhere so far in this pandemic," Murthy said.

With files from Jon Hernandez