OTTAWA—The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the coronavirus outbreak a global emergency as the federal government scrambled to airlift Canadians out of the affected region in China.
The declaration will step up international efforts to combat the spread of the virus that already has confirmed cases in 18 countries, including three reported in Canada.
“The committee believes that it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk,” the health organization said in a statement.
In Canada, politicians and public officials were united in saying that the risk remains low to Canadians and that the WHO declaration changes little for their response to the public health crisis. And they took aim at the misinformation and “racist rhetoric” they said is fuelling concerns.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that Canada is already “fully in line” with recommendations for dealing with the global emergency. She said the declaration is primarily to bolster the capacity of less-developed countries to respond.
“There’s an implication that stronger countries need to support the weaker countries in the world to further prevent the transmission of the illness,” Hajdu said, adding that Canada is providing technical and research support to the WHO.
The number of Canadians asking for Ottawa’s help as they cope with a China-imposed quarantine on Hubei province has grown to 196, mainly centred in the city of Wuhan, where the public health emergency originated, said Canada’s global affairs department.
The federal government continued Thursday to work on its contingency plan to charter an aircraft and return them to Canada, an issue that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted had the government’s full attention.
“We will continue to do everything that we can to secure their return to Canada and do so in a way that is safe and that … doesn’t allow for a greater propagation of the virus,” said Trudeau, who did not deny that the government has already moved to evacuate some family members of Canadian diplomats right away.
Trudeau stressed that the risk for people in Canada “remains low” despite the organization’s declaration, in part because of the precautions in place.
“We have strong measures in place at airports. We have strong measures in place in all of our health centres and hospitals to ensure that the risk of transmission, spreading of this virus is low,” he said.
He pivoted to a public health message to Canadians, urging people to wash their hands regularly, “get the flu shot, cough into your elbow” — all things he said were “good ways to behave” to protect against all kinds of seasonal viruses.
Trudeau cautioned against believing “unreasonable fears expressed on the internet,” urging Canadians, including those of Chinese origin, to “pull together and lean on each other.”
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said the emergency declaration doesn’t change how the risk to Canadians “remains low” given that the virus has not been shown to be spreading within Canada, and that the processes to screen travellers at airports and isolate any who feel sick are working.
Canada has only three confirmed cases out of about 100 who have been tested, and all three of the infected individuals are in “stable condition,” Tam said.
In Ontario, 27 people are being tested for coronavirus, but most remain at home and there is “no evidence” of person-to-person transmission here, provincial health officials said.
Tam warned against misinformation and the spread of unfounded fear, and took particular issue with “negative social media” messages, including “racist rhetoric” that will hinder a successful response to the situation.
“Let’s turn the dialogue around, raise our collective voice for good and work together to address this global public health emergency,” she said.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, also said that the risk is low and that the declaration “has little impact” on Toronto’s response. “We are actively monitoring the situation in collaboration with our provincial and national health colleagues,” she said in a statement.
Hajdu was unable Thursday to say how that plan to airlift Canadians out of China was progressing, saying it was complicated by the need to negotiate the approval of Chinese authorities to fly into the quarantined zone where travel has been restricted.
Hajdu told the House of Commons Thursday that there are preliminary indications from the government of China that “patients who are ill will not be permitted to leave.”
Get more politics in your inbox
Make sense of what’s happening across the country and around the world with the Star’s This Week in Politics email newsletter.
Hajdu said officials are working to ensure “the safe transfer of Canadians” who want to leave, and to ensure the safety of those who remain in China.
Patients who are ill would be isolated when they return to Canada, Hajdu later told reporters. “If any patients were exhibiting symptoms of being ill, they would be isolated until we can determine they were free of the coronavirus,” she said.
But she said that no decision has been made yet on what to do with those Canadians who are displaying no symptoms. The United States is quarantining arriving passengers at an airbase in California for at least 72 hours. Australia said its citizens would be quarantined on an island for up to two weeks.
Federal officials say public health experts are deciding what precautions are needed to best avoid the spread of the disease here in Canada.
“We are working out the processes right now to determine who is coming, what is the state of health will be when they board the plane and what processes we need to take in order to ensure their health when they return,” she said.
Currently passengers arriving in Canada on commercial flights from China are given information about the virus and asked to report if they exhibit any symptoms.
In China, there have been 7,711 confirmed cases and 12,167 suspected cases and 170 people have died, according to the WHO.
In its statement, the WHO praised China’s “commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak.
“China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools,” the organization said.
The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that the Canadian government has begun to evacuate “vulnerable” family members of diplomats in mainland China, including those over 65, young school age children, along with people with existing medical conditions.
Trudeau was asked why the family of Canadian consular staff are leaving when others have not yet been flown out.
He dodged a direct answer, saying only that Canadian consular staff are “fully engaged” and are responding to the concerns that Canadians have on the ground in China.
Meanwhile, the spread of the novel coronavirus is likely to have an economic impact as well, Canadian officials said, noting Canadian exports of lobster have been hit with a price drop, and other export sectors, like meat and wheat, may still be affected.
Speaking to a special Commons committee on Canada-China relations, Global Affairs officials said it’s not clear if the price drop is due to fewer Chinese consumers headed to food markets for live lobster, or whether other factors are at play, including movements of Chinese consumers across the massive country during the Lunar New Year, or state measures like transit or market shutdowns.
Lenore Zann, a Liberal MP from Nova Scotia, said lobster producers in her riding have seen lobster prices drop two dollars a pound.