Canadians stranded in Nepal during the novel coronavirus pandemic have launched a petition to press the federal government for flights home.
“We appeal to the Canadian government to urgently help repatriate the many citizens currently stranded in Nepal,” the Change.org petition says.
As of Monday, it had garnered more than 3,400 signatures.
Originally from Montreal, Carl Kouri, 47, says he has been in Nepal since October, working on a project with a charity run by another Canadian.
Around March 18, he was on a trek when he heard the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was calling Canadians to return home.
“Let me be clear: if you are abroad, it’s time for you to come home,” Trudeau said on March 16. But he also acknowledged that some Canadians would be unable to return from overseas, as borders around the world tightened in response to the growing pandemic.
Kouri says he and other Canadians on the trek descended to Jhapa and tried to get back to Kathmandu once they heard the call to return.
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But “local transportation was already in chaos and most flights and buses were cancelled because of lack of passengers heading to the capital,” he said.
Right now, Kouri says he is in the district of Ilam, north of a village called Fikkal Bazaar, along with Terrence Barton, a 72-year-old from Calgary who’s been in the country since February.
Barton says his son has settled in Nepal and has run a charity there since 2005 — the same one Kouri has worked for.
“I come over on a yearly basis just to help out with our projects, make sure that things are going proper,” Barton said.
Kouri says they tried to connect with Canadians consular officials in Nepal but couldn’t. Then they received limited information from the Canadian embassy in India, he says.
Nepal is under a nationwide lockdown until April 8. The lockdown means all air and long-distance vehicle transport is suspended, except for essential services. International flights are also banned till April 15.
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The landlocked country has reported only five cases of COVID-19 as of March 29, with no deaths, but it is concerned contagion will spread as more people travel.
Over the weekend came some news of how to relocate to Kathmandu in the hopes of potentially catching a repatriation flight.
“In the last day and a half, they’ve started to communicate with us,” Kouri says.
A March 29 email Global Affairs Canada sent to Kouri recommends that any Canadians wanting repatriation should travel to Kathmandu. Repatriation flights can happen on short notice — “potentially as little as a few hours before departure,” says the March 29 email, which was provided to Global News.
The email says that the Nepalese government is organizing airlifts and buses to Kathmandu for foreigners stranded across Nepal.
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“If a flight out of Nepal for these foreign nationals is yet to be fixed by the time of relocation, they will be put in quarantine in one of several hotels in Kathmandu at their own cost during the period that they are waiting,” the email says.
But Barton says he is concerned about undertaking a journey to Kathmandu from remote Ilam — a 12-hour journey covering more than 500 kilometres by road, according to Google maps — without the confirmed possibility of a flight home.
“You would basically be isolated in a hotel in Kathmandu with no scheduled flight out,” he says. “At my age, going into an urban center like Kathmandu without having a plan is disconcerting.”
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The email sent to Kouri says consular officials are “working closely with airlines” and other countries to figure out flights for Canadians wanting to come home.
In a statement Monday in response to questions by Global News about what is being done for Canadians in Nepal, Global Affairs spokesperson Krystyna Dodds said the department is aware of Canadians in Nepal “who are seeking a return to Canada” and that diplomatic missions “remain open” for urgent consular services.
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“While we take the safety and security of Canadians abroad very seriously, some limitations may be in effect in some areas of the world,” she said. “As a result, delays in the provision of consular services and even disruptions of service may occur.”
A previous statement from Global Affairs warns that travel insurance providers will no longer cover travel booked on or after March 13, 2020, when the government officially advised Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of the country until further notice.
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“Canadian travellers who are already outside Canada, including the United States, should know that choosing to stay abroad could change or complicate their travel health insurance coverage, including losing coverage for COVID-19 and other conditions,” the statement says.
“Travel insurance providers may only provide a 10-day notice before placing limits on insurance policies.”
Kouri’s petition calls on the Canadian government to “force travel-medical insurance companies to continue to extend regular and COVID-19 coverage or come up with another arrangement until those citizens can get home.”
He says there are Canadians like him who are wanting to return home but cannot, and that insurance coverage needs to be addressed in the meantime.
“We’re not asking for a handout,” Kouri said. “We’ll pay for our extension.”
On Monday, Global Affairs announced a number of repatriation flights from Haiti, Honduras, Ghana, and Sudan. There are more than 395,000 Canadians currently registered as overseas, with 1,092 registered in Nepal, but there could be more, since registration is voluntary.
— With files by The Associated Press
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