Ottawa

'Mom will have to wait': Families trapped in coronavirus epicentre face separation

With a plane to bring back Canadians from Wuhan set to leave China on Thursday morning local time, many families who call Canada home now face the tough reality of being separated.

3 Canadian families cope with leaving members in Hubei province

Kai Huang, centre, has either been in quarantine or self-isolating since January. He and his family have a plan to separate if one of them should become ill now, to protect his single mother, Yi Huang, and his one-year-old daughter. (Supplied by Bingli Liu)

With Canada chartering a plane to bring Canadians home from the epicentre of the coronavirus in China, many families are facing painful decisions about whether they can, or will, stay or go.

According to Global Affairs Canada, only people with Canadian passports or permanent residents accompanying Canadian minors will be allowed to board — a decision made by officials in China. 

Those with permanent residency status, which grants a person most of the rights and responsibilities of a Canadian citizen, will remain in Hubei. 

That means tough decisions about leaving loved ones behind, worries about children separated from their parents, the uncertainty of families with stranded breadwinners and the helplessness of not knowing what comes next.  

Kai Huang has Canadian citizenship but doesn't like the prospect of leaving his 78-year-old mother — who only has her permanent residency — in the outbreak's epicentre. Both live in Ottawa but were staying at Huang's sister-in-law's home in Wuhan.

"Most concerning is that if I go back to Ottawa, my mom has to live here," Huang said by phone Sunday. The 50-year-old works in program analysis at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa.

The plane to bring Canadians back from Wuhan is set to leave China on Thursday morning local time, and Huang and his mother are some of the many who call Canada home but face the tough reality of being separated. Huang said he's his single mother's only child. The idea of leaving her behind is "very difficult," he said. 

"If she gets sick, that's going to be really life-threatening," Huang said.

At least 543 Canadians in Hubei province have registered with Global Affairs Canada's Registration of Canadians Abroad service. 

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said there are 280 Canadian passport-holders and 24 others who want to board the chartered flight.

Toddler in quarantine

Richmond, B.C., resident Amelia Pan worries about whether her two-year-old daughter, Cerena, will be able to board.

Cerena is a Canadian citizen, but Pan's husband, Wei Ye, is a permanent resident in Canada. Ye was admitted to a hospital in China after showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus. He was later confirmed to have the virus, but Pan says he's recovering.

Pan said her husband and their daughter were visiting family over the Chinese New Year when the outbreak was made public. Pan, who only recently gained her Canadian citizenship, stayed behind in B.C. to wait for a Chinese visa.

While Cerena has been cleared to fly by the Canadian government, she's been kept at a hotel local governments have designated as a quarantined area.

She's being looked after by people Pan barely knows. Initially, she was being looked after by the neighbours of Pan's in-laws, who were with the toddler when the city was placed under lockdown.  

Richmond, B.C., resident Amelia Pan worries about whether her two-year-old daughter, Cerena, will be able to board the plane. Her daughter has been in quarantine ever since her father, Wei Ye, was admitted into a Hubei hospital. (Supplied by Amelia Pan )

Despite the emotional stress the parents are under, they're trying to do everything they can for Cerena.

"We are the adults," Pan said Monday. "I'm sure we can handle it. Right now, it's time to be strong and conquer anything that stands in our way to getting our daughter back."

Still, she fears for Cerena's wellbeing in light of the fact she has been separated from both parents. 

"She has been passed along, stranger to stranger," Pan said. 

Pan worries that if the flight leaves before the Chinese government releases her child from quarantine, Cerena will be left behind.

Pan fears the longer her daughter stays in Hubei, the more likely it is she'll contract the virus.

If the two-year-old is allowed to fly, Pan is requesting to be allowed to enter quarantine with her when she arrives back in Canada. 

"I'm willing to go, I just don't know if I'm going to be able to," she said. "I know some other families with young children coming back might want to do the same. There's just a lot of things hanging in the air."   

Pan knows her husband's situation is more complicated. It's uncertain when he will be released from hospital, let alone when he might leave China.

Pan doesn't know what the long-term plan is for her husband and says once he is released, he'll no longer have a Canadian citizen to accompany him home.

Canadians seek repatriation

Those who are allowed to board the flight back to Canada will be placed in quarantine for two weeks to prevent the virus from spreading.

Many Canadians trapped in Hubei say they would welcome that as an alternative to staying in China.

Bingli Liu's husband and mother-in-law are trapped in Wuhan, China's coronavirus quarantine zone. Her husband will be allowed to leave on a government-chartered flight, but her mother-in-law will not be allowed aboard because she is a permanent resident in Canada, not a citizen. 0:40

Clint Cheng, spokesperson for a group of more than 50 Canadians trapped in Hubei, says after seeing the devastating effects of the virus firsthand, people in his group don't want to contribute to spreading it further. 

"Among us, men and women, seniors and babies, just unknowingly [happened] to be at the wrong place at the wrong time," the Vancouver resident wrote over the Chinese messaging app WeChat. 

Like many, Cheng was visiting family over the Chinese New Year when the outbreak occurred. 

"None of us, working or visiting in this country could possibly know in advance that there would be an outbreak of this dangerous virus, taking hundreds of lives and threatening our health and life in such a dramatic scale," he said.

Stranded alone

Pei Lu, a permanent resident who has called Saskatoon home for the past eight years, is the sole member of his family of four stuck overseas.

He had been visiting his parents at the time of the lockdown but has since become separated from them.

Under the restrictions Global Affairs announced Monday, he won't be allowed on that plane because he will not be accompanying a child.

"Right now, it's just me," he said. "I [won't'] be allowed to leave Wuhan."

Lu works at Costco, he said, and is the sole provider for his wife and two children. With the help of his parents in China, he's been able to send money home to help them in the short term. 

There is no telling how long he will be gone.

"Every day, I just stay in my home. Continuously, for 10 days, I just stay in my home," he said. "Outside is very, very dangerous."

Diana Young, Lu's wife, said the family is waiting anxiously for her husband's return. They send words of encouragement to him through WeChat. 

"My daughter, every day if she has free time, contacts her father," she said.

'I have hope'

And as they wait, people like Kai Huang and his mother can do little but stay inside, eat as little as possible to avoid trips to the grocers and hope for the best.

He said Monday night that he hasn't abandoned his mother just yet.  

"I have hope," he said. "If I ask them then maybe my mother can be allowed to board." 

Huang said he's in contact with his member of Parliament, Chandra Arya, to plead his case. 

If the answer is still no, Huang has already made his difficult decision. He has a one-year-old daughter at home who needs her father.  

"My mom will have to wait," he said.

About the Author

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Brian Rodgers and Judy Trinh

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