Packed repatriation flight from India leaves Vancouver actor fearing COVID-19 exposure
Bhavkhandan Rakhra expected more distancing on 19-hour trip; MP says government balancing safety and urgency
Vancouver actor Bhavkhandan Rakhra is home from India but worries about the risk he took on a Canadian government repatriation flight that provided no physical distancing between passengers.
The journey from Amritsar, Punjab to Vancouver, with a short stop in Doha, Qatar took nearly 19 hours.
"Jam-packed plane. Not a single seat empty," said Rakhra, 64, regarding Qatar Airways flight 5481.
Rakhra paid $3,215 for the one-way flight and assumed the hefty price would ensure him a safe seat.
"I don't see how can they justify four times the fare, one-way travel, without any social distancing," said Rakhra, who estimates a one-way ticket usually costs approximately $800.
Rakhra, who travelled to India on February 27 for a film shoot, was scheduled to return to B.C. on April 7 but was stranded when India declared a 21-day lockdown and all commercial flights were suspended.
He returned on May 7 and is now in mandatory quarantine for 14 days at his South Vancouver home anxious and worried that he may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Passengers were instructed to be at Amritsar's Sri Guru Ram Das Ji International Airport six hours before departure time.
Rakhra arrived at 1:45 p.m. and waited outside the airport for an hour to get inside, while the temperature hovered at 38 C.
There were 40 people ahead of him and within 45 minutes another 150 behind him.
"People were not following that six feet or two metre thing and no one was really enforcing it even though there was the police and airline people," said Rakhra.
Once in the airport, passengers had their temperature checked and filled out medical forms beyond the regular check-in process — which Rakhra said moved quite smoothly.
Everyone was issued a boarding pass and through security in about two hours, he said.
Then there was more waiting until 7 p.m. and the scheduled arrival of their Qatar Airways plane, while the air-conditioning worked in only one small area of the boarding lounge.
"There were mosquitos at the airport. There were birds. There were pigeons flying here and there," said Rakhra who managed to snag a seat in the cooler area.
While there was little physical distancing during the wait, at boarding time, Rakhra says, airline staff were very strict with passengers.
"They were telling everyone make one line, stay six feet away and we'll gently load up everybody but if you stay together it will delay the flight," he said.
None of that mattered on the plane, said Rakhra, where passengers were shoulder-to-shoulder.
Appropriate balance, says government
Surrey-Newton Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal says everyone who gets on a repatriation flight is subject to a temperature check, obligated to wear a mask during the flight and then self-isolate for 14 days after arriving home.
In an email to CBC News, Dhaliwal said the federal government feels it has achieved an appropriate balance between safety measures and the urgent need to get thousands of people back to Canada.
There were over 30,000 Canadians in India when border closures and flight cancellations began to take effect.
So far, the federal government has faciliated 37 repatriation flights.
During Rakhra's attempts to find a spot on one of those flights, he was stuck in a house in Jalandhar, Punjab, and had locals bring him emergency food and supplies for 21 days.
Rakhra tried to get on charter flights arranged by a volunteer group based in Surrey, B.C., but at the last minute the Indian government revoked its permit for the flights.
Eventually Rakhra, who was born in India, obtained a hard-to-get travelling permit and made it to his hometown of Moga where he could stay with extended family and try to get on a federal government flight.
Home sweet home
The first thing he did upon arriving home was shed his travel clothes in his garage, take a shower and put on clean clothes.
Then he greeted his wife and children from a distance and retreated to a bedroom where he will self-isolate for two weeks.
"I didn't even say anything to my dog. He was just looking at me," joked Rakhra via a video-conference call.
The room has its own bathroom and a deck area where Rakhra can get some fresh air and exercise.
He spends most of his time meditating, reading and online.
His meals are left at the door.
Rakhra says he feels good and healthy but the 14-day isolation period will be stressful and all he can do is hope for the best.
CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email email@example.com.