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Coronavirus evacuation flight to Canada leaves some family members stranded | World news


As an airplane chartered by the Canadian government departs central China on Thursday, hundreds of evacuees will breathe a sigh of relief as they leave Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. The plane is scheduled to land at a Canadian air force base early on Friday, according to foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

But others with close ties to Canada will remain trapped in the quarantined city: the evacuation flight is only open to Canadian passport holders. Permanent residents and Chinese citizens are not eligible for a seat, unless they are the primary caregiver of a child on the flight manifest.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 6 February, China’s death toll grew to 563, with 28,018 confirmed cases. There remains one additional fatality in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. The mortality rate stands at 2.1%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, and a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

Among those stranded are Canadian permanent residents Danni Luo and her eight-year-old daughter Qinlin Li, who travelled to Wuhan on 19 January to celebrate Chinese lunar new year with family.

“They’re not on that airplane. And I have no indication from the Canadian government that they will be on any airplane ever,” said Luo’s husband Monte Gisborne, speaking from the family home in Coquitlam, British Columbia.





Monte Gisborne, Danni Luo and Qinlin Li in happier times.



Monte Gisborne, Danni Luo and Qinlin Li in happier times. Photograph: Handout

Gisborne said he feared the virus was “closing in” on his family.

“Their neighbours are dying. My wife’s mother’s best friend has died of the coronavirus,” he said. “There are reported infections in the buildings around them. It’s like everything is closing in on them.”

Canada will send a second flight to help those unable to board the first plane on 10 February, according to Champagne, and the United States has also offered seats on an evacuation flight later on Thursday. But it remained unclear if the offers will be open to non-citizens.

Luo and Li initially planned to return home on 15 February. But as news of the virus spread and panic seized the city, Luo changed their tickets to 28 January as a precautionary measure.

Days later, however, Chinese authorities shut down transportation to and from the city, rendering the tickets useless.

Gisborne said he had struggled to get answers from Canadian officials as he waits for his wife and daughter to return. “I’m so frustrated. I’m so fed up with this lack of communication, lack of planning, lack of direction.”

Wayne Duplessis and Emily Tjandra, who work as teachers in Wuhan, initially welcomed news an aircraft would be taking Canadians out of the locked-down city.





Wayne Duplessis, Emily Tjandra and their son Wyatt, 15.



Wayne Duplessis, Emily Tjandra and their son Wyatt, 15. Photograph: Handout

But they soon realized an evacuation would separate their family. Duplessis and his 15-year-old son Wyatt are Canadian citizens; Emily and her older son Adryan, 38, are not.

As they weighed their options, Duplessis said that advice from Canadian officials often arrived too late to be of use.

“By the time I got the most recent details about the evacuation flight, people were already at the airport,” he said. “I don’t mean to be judgmental … but there are people here that need help – and they need some clear answers.”

With roads shut down and no private cars or taxis on the road, just reaching the airport is a logistical challenge, he said.

Further complicating matters is that Adryan, also a teacher, is trapped on the other side of the city at one of the school’s campuses.

Because of the uncertainty, Duplessis and his wife have decided to stay in Wuhan.

The family is “relatively comfortable”, with access to food and water in the high-rise apartment, he said.

“Normally, there’s just so much humanity here. It’s wonderful,” he said. “But you’re not seeing that any more. It’s empty. The only reminder there are even people around you is at night, when their lights are turned on.”

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