Yellowknife couple faces coronavirus on both sides of the world

While Steven Shen waits for the panic to subside in China’s Guangdong province, his wife Nancy Lin confronts fear of the COVID-19 in Yellowknife.

Steven Shen waits out the worry in China; his wife encounters fear of the COVID-19 in Yellowknife

Steven Shen went to China while his wife Nancy Lin stayed in Yellowknife. Shen has extended his stay indefinitely while he waits for fears of the coronavirus to subside. (Submitted by Steven Shen and Nancy Lin)

It was supposed to be a retirement vacation. 

Steven Shen travelled to Asia with a Yellowknife couple, first to the couple's home community in the Philippines, then to his in China. 

Shen grew up in Chaozhou, a city of 2.6 million people in China's Guangdong province.

He reached China on Jan. 18, planning to return to Yellowknife on March 3. 

In early February, he learned from his travel agent that his return flight to Canada, on China Eastern Airlines, was cancelled. 

Chaozhou is about 800 kilometres south of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, first emerged, and far from the areas where authorities have imposed a clampdown on travel. 

But Wuhan is a busy travel hub, which has affected routes throughout the country. 

Shen could have rebooked on a later flight, but he hasn't yet done so. 

"After consulting with my family and consulting a public health expert, they say, well, you're better to stay in China longer, and I think it is a good idea." 

I want to set an example for other people.- Steven Shen

Shen is a former environmental health officer with the N.W.T. government. He moved to Yellowknife 15 years ago to take the job. 

So while he wants to avoid travelling on any routes where he could be exposed to the illness, or carrying the illness himself, there's also another reason he's choosing to stay put.

"I want to set an example for other people."

A strange encounter

Shen's wife, Nancy Lin, says she's OK with that decision. She and the couple's daughter have been in Yellowknife the whole time, checking in with Steve by phone. 

"He is having a good time," Lin said. 

But Lin has faced her own COVID-19 battles at home. 

A street scene in Chaozhou, China, where Steven Shen has now spent about two months. (Submitted by Steven Shen)

She usually travels to China over the holidays, visiting family for two weeks at a time. This year, she changed that plan in order to prepare for an exam. 

One afternoon in January, she was in the downtown grocery store when she saw one of her co-workers, who knows her usual pattern. 

"He passed by," she said, "and then realized it was me. And then he stepped two steps far away from me, which is kind of about two metres away from me, and then he stopped and turned and said, 'Hey, Nancy! Have you just come back from China?'

"Obviously I can feel that two-metres distance." 

Fear subsiding in China

In China, Shen says he's already seen concern about the COVID-19 virus calm down. 

He spoke to the CBC from a street side tea shop and said people were smiling and out walking around.

"That was not the situation one month ago. People were very worried." 

Shen said he's also hoping to get some more information as an international traveller returning to the N.W.T., "such as guidance on isolation and prevention."

Two men enjoy tea in a streetside cafe in Chaozhou in early March. 'That was not the situation one month ago. People were very worried.' (Submitted by Steven Shen)

So far, the territorial government has not issued any general warnings or advice on whether or not to travel — inside or outside of the country. The World Health Organization has not yet advised against any international travel.

The federal government issued a travel advisory on Jan. 7 advising Canadians "to consider avoiding non-essential travel to China" and other countries affected by the COVID-19 virus. 

That advisory recommends travellers who do go to China avoid spending time in large crowds, avoid sick people and animals, and follow local public health advice. 

Travellers returning from China are asked to monitor their health for fever, cough and difficulty breathing for 14 days, and "avoid places where you cannot easily separate from others if you become ill."

People who do develop symptoms are asked to isolate themselves from others as quickly as possible and contact a health-care professional.

Those who have travelled to China's Hubei Province (of which Wuhan is the capital) are asked to contact the public health authority in the area where they live within 24 hours of arriving in Canada.