Why it's taking so long to get Canadians out of Wuhan, and other coronavirus airlift questions

As Canadians are airlifted out of Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, many are asking how the exodus will unfold, why it took so long for Canada to get its citizens out of the country and what happens when these Canadians arrive back home. ​​​​​​​

Federal ministers explain why other nations were ahead of Canada in getting citizens out of China

A group of medical personnel prepare to guide 80 people, accompanied by medical specialists, carried by a Russian military plane at an airport outside Tyumen, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Many countries managed to evacuate citizens from China before Canada. (Maxim Slutsky/The Associated Press)

As Canadians are airlifted out of Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, many are asking how the exodus will unfold, why it took so long for Canada to get its citizens out of the country and what happens when these Canadians arrive back home. 

1. How are Canadians who've requested evacuation from Wuhan getting out?

An aircraft, chartered by the federal government, with 211 Canadians on the manifest is expected to leave Wuhan around 12 p.m. ET on Thursday. As many as 373 Canadians have requested evacuation, but the number, according to officials and senior cabinet ministers, is a moving target. The chartered aircraft will fly to the Canadian military air base in Trenton, Ont.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Minister of Health Patty Hajdu speak with reporters Wednesday about evacuating Canadians from China. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne revealed late Wednesday that the U.S. had offered up space for a "handful" of Canadians on one of its charter evacuation flights, which is due to leave Wuhan Tianhe International Airport shortly after the Canadian aircraft departs.

The American plane will stop in Vancouver "where Canadian passengers will disembark for onward travel to CFB Trenton, where they will be subject to the same processes as those Canadians travelling on the Canadian flight." Champagne said. The federal government is considering a second chartered flight should more Canadian request repatriation.

2. What has taken the federal government so long?

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has conceded the federal government was initially caught off guard and had "a slow start in terms of organizing" the evacuation plane. 

"We didn't have an understanding of the number of people that needed assistance," she said.  "As we communicated more [with people in the region] about the need to register and let us know, our numbers shot up rather dramatically."

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The government has only a sketchy idea of the number of Canadians in China's Hubei province, which is the epicentre of the outbreak. Collecting information was also apparently hampered by the absence of a consulate in the area, senior government officials said on background. 

In addition, the Chinese government is apparently only allowing evacuation flights in and out of Wuhan at night because their own relief and quarantine efforts take place during the day. 

The Canadian government also said Wednesday that bad weather further delayed the flight. 

3. Why have other countries been able to move more swiftly in organizing flights?

The United States, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, Britain, Portugal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand and Indonesia have all gotten at least evacuation flights out of Wuhan.

Planes carrying Americans have arrived in the United States from China over the past week, including this one, which landed in California. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Hajdu said those countries have not faced the same challenges, mostly because "they had a better sense" of where and how many of their citizens were in the affected area.

4. What precautions will be taken to ensure the evacuees are not carrying coronavirus?

Chinese health authorities are set to screen each individual passenger and no one who is sick — or displays symptoms -— will be allowed to board the chartered aircraft. There will be a six-person Canadian military medical team on-board the aircraft who will conduct further screening and monitor the condition of the passengers.

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Maj.-Gen. Andrew Downes, the surgeon general of the Canadian Forces, told the House of Commons health committee Wednesday that the team will be wearing masks and protection and will offer the same to evacuees. 

"Our medical team that deployed last weekend took with them an extensive array of personal protective equipment, including, masks, gowns gloves, face shields, et cetera," Downes testified. "Should one of the passengers manifest symptoms that would be consistent with coronavirus during the flight, they will be isolated, so much as is possible, in the aircraft and they will be required to wear full protective equipment."

He insisted it will be the same level of protection as one sees in a hospital.

5. What happens to the evacuees once they are at the Canadian air base in Trenton?

The evacuees will be quarantined there for two weeks. Maj.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu, who is in charge of the military's strategic joint staff, told the Commons health committee that individuals and families will have their own quarters at the base's Yukon Lodge and will be sequestered from all military personnel and the outside world.

Yukon Lodge at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton will be the quarantine location for the Canadians evacuated from China due to the outbreak of coronavirus. (Alex Filipe/Reuters)

During the quarantine period, "they'll have an opportunity to move about in that very local area but they will not be mingling," Cadieau said.

Canada Border Service Agency officials will meet the plane at the ramp upon arrival and Ontario health officials will conduct further medical tests, he said.

In addition, if the federal government organizes further flights, Cadieu said the military is "conducting a stocktaking of all infrastructure accommodations at Canadian Forces bases throughout Canada" in case Trenton becomes full.   

With files from the CBC's David Cochrane and Phil Ling


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