As It Happens

Canadian trapped in Peru amid COVID-19 lockdown worried about his HIV medications

Chris Tooriram travelled to the country with five friends before Canada issued its global travel advisory and Peru locked down its borders.

Chris Tooriram travelled to the country with 5 friends before Canada issued its global travel advisory

Chris Tooriram, right, and three of his friends in Peru before the country went into a coronavirus-related lockdown. (Submitted by Chris Tooriram )


Chris Tooriram almost didn't join his friends for their Peruvian adventure.

Travelling is always risky for the Ottawa man, who is HIV-positive and needs regular access to his antiretroviral medications.

When he and his pals started planning their big trip in December, the coronavirus outbreak was just starting to make headlines in China. By the time they left on March 11, there were fewer than 20 cases in Peru, and no Canadian travel advisories for the country. 

"I was 50 per cent on the fence for just cancelling the whole thing myself and not coming, knowing my medical situation," Tooriram told As It Happens host Carol Off. "In retrospect, looking back, I wish I hadn't come."

Peru on lockdown

Now the whole country is on lockdown. 

Peru has 71 cases of coronavirus. President Martin Vizcarra announced Sunday the country is closings its borders to curb the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Commercial planes aren't going in or out. But even if Tooriram and his friends could get a flight, they have no way of travelling from Cusco to the airport in Lima. 

The government has deployed soldiers on the streets to enforce a 15-day quarantine. People are only allowed out to access supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, basic services and the transportation of merchandise.

A soldier keeps watch in Peru after Peru's government deployed military personnel to block major roads as the country rolls out a 15-day state of emergency to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters)

Tooriram is a Canadian citizen, as are four of the friends he travelled with. One other is a permanent resident. All five are now stuck in a hotel in Cusco.

Their flight for March 23 is cancelled, and Tooriram has exactly enough medications for 21 days. 

"I have enough if the quarantine is just 15 days and we get a flight, like, in the next maximum five days after that," he said. "But if that doesn't happen, I'm kind of screwed."

People with HIV are able to live long, healthy lives with the help of antiretroviral medication that suppresses their viral loads — the amount of HIV detected in blood —  reducing the risk of transmitting the virus to another person to a negligible level.

But without those drugs, Tooriram risks becoming becoming detectable, which means his immune system could be compromised and he would be susceptible to what he calls "other opportunistic infections."

"And coronavirus happens to be one of them —  in fact, the main one that worries me the most right now," he said. 

Little is known about how COVID-19 affects HIV patients, but health officials say the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk.

Trudeau to Canadians abroad: 'Come home'

Canada on Monday closed its borders to everyone except Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and U.S. citizens, and restricted the number of Canadian airports accepting international flights to four.

In a press conference announcing the new restrictions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's message was clear: "If you're abroad, it's time for you to come home."

Tooriram, second from the right, and his friends on the deserted streets of Cusco on a grocery run. (Submitted by Chris Tooriram )

But that's easier said than done for many. 

Tooriram says he and his friends have had no luck reaching consular officials for help. It's a refrain that's been echoed by Canadians all over the world who are scrambling to get home.

Global Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the government has announced a support program that will provide an emergency loan to Canadians "in need of immediate financial assistance to help return home or to temporarily cover their life-sustaining needs while they work toward their return."

Canada has had a global travel advisory in effect since March 13. Tooriram says he's been trying to get out since, but runs into obstacles at every turn.

"We're just in limbo and uncertain of what would happen," he said. 

"I'm just laying there and thinking of all these different outcomes, and none of them seem to make me want to smile. Every possible outcome from this crisis seems not in my favour."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters and CBC News. Interview with Chris Tooriram produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

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