Toronto

Markham man trapped in India's COVID-19 lockdown worried he'll run out of needed meds

More than 15-thousand Canadians have told Global Affairs Canada they are in India, which is in COVID-19 lockdown until mid-April. Many are hoping the Canadian government will find a way to bring them home. One Markham man hopes that help will come in time.

"I’m on a lot of medications, they keep me alive," says Sekar Venkateswaran

Sekar Venkateswaran, a retired information technology specialist from Markham, pictured with his granddaughter in India two weeks ago. He had attended his son's wedding there and was about to return when the country went into lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (supplied by Mona Minhas)

A 70-year-old Markham man who travelled to India to attend his son's wedding is now stranded there amid a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown — and he's worried he'll run out of life-saving medication before he can get back home to Canada.

"I have a serious heart condition. I'm on a lot of medications, they keep me alive," Sekar Venkateswaran, a retired information technology specialist, told CBC Toronto over the phone from Chennai, India.

Venkateswaran travelled there before the COVID-19 situation escalated. He was due to return to Canada on March 28, but managed to book an earlier flight back that had been scheduled to leave on March 23.

But then Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the entire country of more than a billion people to be locked down to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. 

That included closing the country's airspace until the middle of April.

"I was really shocked about that," said Venkateswaran, who calculated he has enough of his heart and kidney medications to last until next week. "And the Indian government may continue the ban beyond the 14th."

His cardiologist and kidney specialist in Canada are hoping to send his prescriptions to India, but he is not confident there is matching medication for his long list of treatments for heart and kidney disease.

"There's no one on the street. There's no movement here," he said. "I'm not sure the stores will be open."

'There is a great risk to him'

His daughter Mona Minhas had returned to Canada earlier and tried to send her father the drugs, but she said the major international courier companies she tried are not accepting parcels for India because of the lockdown. 

Now, Minhas is trying to find generic matches in India for the drugs her dad desperately needs.

"Pharmacies aren't regulated the way they are here in Canada in India. Some are reliable and some aren't, so there is a great risk to him," said Minhas.

She feels there is a lack of information for the more than 15 thousand Canadians stuck in India. 

People line up to buy essential supplies in a grocery shop in Guwahati in northeastern India on Tuesday. (Anupam Nath/The Associated Press)

And she wonders if the federal government, which is dispatching planes around the world to bring Canadians home, will help those trapped in India.

Rajvinder Kaur's two teenage kids and elderly parents are among them. She said they were originally scheduled to return on March 22 just ahead of India's initial one-week ban on air travel, but their flight was cancelled. 

They were able to book flights on Air Canada for April 4, then the ban was extended.

"The messages from the Canadian High Commission have shifted towards telling Canadians they are negotiating ways to get them comfortable for sticking this out where they are," she said in an email to CBC Toronto. "This is a terrifying shift. I can't imagine any way for our government to ensure its citizens safety or comfort in a country that is so volatile and prone to unrest."

The federal government says 15,000 Canadian passport holders have registered with Global Affairs.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told CBC Vancouver he is in negotiations with his Indian counterpart to arrange flights to bring Canadians back home.

"I hope I will be in a position to announce the details very soon, but I do know it's becoming increasingly challenging to bring back Canadian travelers who are stranded abroad," he said. "You have seen over the last few days airspace closures, border closures, airport closures in some countries."

Railway officials walk through a deserted railway station platform in Prayagraj, India, on Tuesday. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday announced a total lockdown of the country of 1.3 billion people to contain the new coronavirus outbreak. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/The Associated Press)

Champagne said the government has been talking to Air Canada and WestJet, but getting a flight is only the beginning as they have to secure rights to land and other on-the-ground logistics.

"I'm hopeful based on a discussion I had with the foreign minister of India that we will be able to facilitate, and my understanding as of now is that these would be facilitated through commercial airports," he said, adding his team is still  "working out the details."

Mona Minhas said it's promising to hear that they're negotiating, but she added there must be a way to get updates out to Canadians.

"I think that's adding to the anxiety," she said. "And people are feeling like they're starting to lose hope."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

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