OTTAWA—Caught off guard by the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, Ottawa has been scrambling to get Canadian citizens out the Chinese city of Wuhan, ground zero of the global health emergency.
A clearer picture has now emerged of how events unfolded over the past 10 days as the Trudeau government worked to overcome diplomatic obstacles and charter the Portuguese airplane that’s expected to bring some 250 Canadians home on Thursday.
Here’s a timeline of Ottawa’s effort to respond:
- Mid- to late January: Reports emerge of a new infectious disease. On Jan. 24, the medical journal The Lancet publishes a report about patients in China who first presented with symptoms in December.
- Weekend of Jan. 25-26: China had days earlier started to impose a quarantine on the megacity of Wuhan, an expanding lockdown that would grow in the coming days to affect tens of millions of people as the fear spread through the region, along with an escalating number of infections and deaths. The first inkling of a coming evacuation comes when the French Foreign Ministry says it is looking at “eventual options” to get its citizens out of Wuhan.
- Sunday, Jan. 26: Global Affairs Canada stands up an emergency response team to handle possible requests from Canadians in China in the face of the virus outbreak, but the extent of the Canadian need is not yet clear. Canada has no consulate office in the province of Hubei, where only 38 Canadians are registered as residents.
- Monday, Jan. 27. There are stirrings that Canadian citizens in the region want Ottawa’s help. Xi Huang, a Toronto student trapped in Wuhan with her 10-month-old son, tells the Star, “Everyone wants to leave. If it was you, you would want to leave as well.”
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convenes his “incident response group” to discuss the coronavirus outbreak for the first time. A public record of the meeting makes no mention of an evacuation. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne notes only eight Canadians have requested consular assistance and later clarifies only two asked for help to leave China.
While Champagne doesn’t rule out an eventual evacuation, the government is exploring options that includes hitching rides with other countries out of the quarantine zone.
- Tuesday, Jan. 28. Twenty four hours later, Ottawa faces a sobering realization and a turning point in Canada’s response. The number of Canadians requesting repatriation skyrockets to more than 120. A senior official, speaking on background, acknowledges that’s when the Trudeau government realized there was no way it could piggyback on any allied partner’s plane for assistance.
Heather Jeffrey, assistant deputy minister at foreign affairs, tells a Commons committee that “the full extent of the Canadian presence in Hubei province was not immediately evident. We don’t have a consulate in that province.”
Publicly, Champagne tells reporters that Canada is still exploring “all options” — including hiring a plane to bring Canadians out of Wuhan. Behind the scenes, according to one senior official, the government starts looking to charter a plane and prepare for a Canadian airlift.
- Wednesday, Jan. 29 There is a lot to sort out.
The first step is to secure a plane, a development that Champagne announces outside the House of Commons. But the government’s rented 250-seat plane can’t fly into China without the green light from officials overseeing the coronavirus quarantine there — and Ottawa still needs to navigate a web of logistical details.
One senior government official describes the evacuation as a hugely complex effort spanning the entire government, with officials from the health and global affairs departments as well as the national security adviser and Privy Council Office working long hours to come up with a plan “as fast as possible.”
Officials need to identify and communicate with Canadians on a list that grew larger almost by the hour, eventually surpassing 300 people. For each, government officials need to determine their citizenship status and, in the case of dual citizens, whether they travelled using their Canadian passports. China says it will not allow dual citizens to leave the country unless they had travelled there on a Canadian passport or travel documents.
Officials also need to determine whether Canadians have family members with them who aren’t citizens, whether they are accompanied by children or elderly dependants, and whether they are showing any symptoms related to the coronavirus.
In Ottawa, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, are tasked with providing regular updates on measures to prevent the virus from spreading in Canada. A senior government official says that, similar to the plan after the Iran plane disaster, the government aims to update the public about the virus and repatriation plans as soon as new information is confirmed.
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The official adds that having Tam involved on the front line of communications, providing near-daily updates to the media about infections and precautions, is important to keep fears in check and guard against the spread of stigma and racism directed at Chinese-Canadians.
“It is understandable that our fears increase during times like this. However, we need to remember that cohesion in our collective efforts is important,” Tam writes on social media. “Racism, discrimination and stigmatizing language are unacceptable and very hurtful.”
- Thursday, Jan. 30. The World Health Organization declares the outbreak a global health emergency. Hajdu says it changes nothing in Canada’s view because Ottawa has already put in place all the protocols to respond to an infectious disease outbreak like this, having learned lessons in 2003 after the SARS outbreak. She says it will mainly help stronger countries assist countries with weaker public health systems. She tells Canadians the risk of transmission of the virus in Canada remains low.
That night, Champagne speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who responds “positively” to Canada’s demand for help organizing an evacuation from Wuhan.
- Sunday, Feb. 2: The evacuation plan starts to emerge. Canada announces it will stage its flight from Hanoi, where the chartered plane will wait for final clearance to enter Chinese airspace. Upon its anticipated return to Canada, its passengers would be quarantined for 14 days — a “precautionary measure,” as Tam later puts it.
But before that can happen, there are more details to sort out.
China requires departing passengers to have letters from the Canadian government indicating that they are interested in leaving. The letters must be shown at checkpoints in the city and airport as they head to meet the flight. In a city under lockdown, they are expected to arrange their own rides to the airport, and must submit their vehicle’s model, licence plate number, the name of their driver and planned route to the airport.
The Canadian government tells them to arrive at the airport no later than Wednesday at 11 p.m. local time.
- Monday, Feb. 3: The Canadian government is closing in on a final timeline for the mission. Conservatives and New Democrats have criticized the government’s response as too slow, but Champagne dismisses any suggestion that Canada’s troubled relationship with China has presented obstacles.
“We required visas from the Chinese government. We required overflight clearances from a number of countries, some of which have closed their airspace in recent days. All those challenges have been met and overcome … we’re not that far away from removing the first tranche of Canadians,” said Jeffrey, the assistant deputy minister at foreign affairs.
- Tuesday, Feb. 4: The first plane is en route to China via Hanoi, to pick up about 250 citizens. Preparations are also being made for a possible second flight. A total of 308 Canadians, out of 565 who have now registered in Hubei province, say they want to leave.
Canadian officials say none of the passengers approved to depart from China report any symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Nevertheless, National Defence medical staff will be on board the Canadian charter to assess passengers before, during and after the flight.
Hajdu tells reporters there was a “run through” at CFB Trenton base Monday to ensure everything is lined up to receive the passengers for quarantine. Family members may be kept together but all will be isolated from one another. Final preparations are being made at the military base to receive them. “We are ready for whenever the plane arrives,” she says.
Ten days after the government started making preparations, it remains unknown when the Canadians will arrive home.
Canadian and Ontario medical authorities say they are ready. Ontario now has 34 patients awaiting test results from nasal and throat swabs for the new coronavirus, with another 12 that are presumed to be negative and awaiting confirmation from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, the ministry of health says.
There are no new confirmed cases beyond the three revealed previously in Ontario. To date, 90 tests have been confirmed negative.
However, a second coronavirus case is reported by B.C. public health authorities, bringing Canada’s total to five.
Correction – February 4, 2020: This article was edited from a previous version that misspelled Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s name.