As Dante Chen studies for an upcoming exam, he can’t take his mind off his family back home in Wuhan.
Chen, a third-year University of Toronto economics student, is constantly checking on his parents living in the Chinese city at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
As of Thursday morning, 17 people have died in the outbreak, all of them in and around Wuhan, with the oldest victim 89 years old and the youngest 48.
Close to 600 people have been infected by the illness, the vast majority of them in Wuhan, although cases have been identified in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
There have been no confirmed cases in Canada, although Canadian public health officials have said several people in two provinces — Quebec and British Columbia — are under observation for signs they may have contracted a coronavirus from China.
“I’m very worried, I really hope they will be okay,” Chen says of his family in Wuhan.
What adds to his concern is that his father is a front-line worker in the fight against coronavirus.
“He’s a doctor, and he has to be around these patients every day,” Chen says.
Some concerned GTA residents are purchasing masks to send to relatives in China.
After independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus, the World Health Organization decided Thursday that the viral illness in China is not yet a global health emergency.
WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a co-ordinated international response.
Many countries have begun screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, trouble breathing and pneumonia.
The Canada Border Services Agency has been working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to carry out screening at points of entry into Canada.
“International travellers arriving at the Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto Pearson international airports will be asked an additional health-screening question to help identify travellers who may have visited Wuhan, China,” the border agency statement reads.
Travellers will either be asked the question on an electronic kiosk or by a border services officer directly.
Passengers arriving in Canada from Wuhan will be subjected to “closer screening.”
Anyone found to have flu-like symptoms will be undergo further checks by health agency staff, who will either be on-site or available by phone.
“While there are no direct flights from Wuhan to Canada, these measures are being put in place at these airports due to the high likelihood that travellers on connecting flights from Wuhan will be arriving in Canada at one of these three airports,” the statement explained.
Chinese authorities earlier took the unprecedented step of locking down at least three cities with a combined population of more than 18 million in an unprecedented effort to contain the deadly new virus during the busy Lunar New Year period, when people travel to visit their families.
The train station and airport in Wuhan were shut down, and ferry, subway and bus service was halted in the city of 11 million people. Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces were eerily quiet. Police checked all incoming vehicles but did not close off the roads.
Authorities announced similar measures would take effect Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. In Huanggang, theatres, internet cafes and other entertainment centres were also ordered closed.
In the capital, Beijing, officials cancelled “major events” indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, in order to “execute epidemic prevention and control.” The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.
The latest news out of China is making some local GTA residents such as Chen nervous for family and friends back home.
Chen’s father works as a radiologist, and conducts CT scans in a hazmat suit to monitor patients who may show symptoms of the virus in their lungs.
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“He told me that it’s hard to tell if it’s just the flu or if it is coronavirus for people he comes in direct contact with — and it’s scary,” he adds.
His father may be virus-free, but Chen said his dad mentioned other colleagues who have contracted the illness.
During the SARS epidemic, Chen was a toddler. But being the son of a doctor, he still remembers those exact white hazmat suits that he sees photos from the news on his WeChat news feed today. In China, doctors would live in the hospitals, so he remembered watching his dad treat patients back then.
“I am confident with that hopefully our research from then will help us contain coronavirus soon,” he says, adding that staying positive is the only way he can send strength to his father and family back home.
Chen wears a mask whenever he goes out in public in Toronto even when he’s healthy.
He says he does get the occasional comment from strangers or Uber drivers who are wary of him.
“I only wear it to make sure I’m OK,” Chen says.
“Not all Chinese people have coronavirus.”
One Markham-based agency which caters to Asian students across the GTA noted that the level of concern locally has risen as more deaths are reported and students try to confirm the well-being of relatives in and around Wuhan. Local residents have also been rallying to send medical supplies to relatives in China.
“I do have a few students and friends, who have family in China, who are pretty concerned,” said Nicole Wong, executive director of Across U-hub, a charitable community organization which provide services to scores of international students from Asia.
“They are trying to get mask and all the medical protections, and then ask friends from North America if they can get it to China,” Wong said of the students efforts to help family there.
“The masks are disposable, so they (in China) need a lot.”
News of the virus does not appear to have had a major impact on travel to China. Travel agents interviewed by the Star have not recorded any major shifts in bookings or cancellations.
Allison Wallace, a spokesperson for the Flight Centre, which has 150 retail locations across Canada, including 44 in Ontario, said as of Thursday their agents haven’t seen any noticeable change in bookings compared to last year at this time.
“That could certainly change if this situation gets worse,” she said. “But for now, we’re not seeing any major cancellations.”
Air Canada officials said at this point it is too early to speculate what impact the virus will have on its services.
“We do not operate to Wuhan, but we have put in place a policy for customers who may be flying on codeshare flights (i.e. where we sell the ticket on flights operated by other carriers) to the city, allowing them to change their travel if they wish,” Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.
“This is something we often do for a variety of reasons.”