As COVID-19 runs rampant, elderly travellers abroad are wary of coming home
I sit dangerously close to my parents in the living room of a retirement resort in Kissimmee, Fla. It’s Monday, March 16 — day six of my family vacation to the U.S., which now feels like an exile. We digest a hearty lunch before an afternoon at the pool and anxiously face the television. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reciprocates our glance. His live address to a nation in panic is unflinching, and fuels our guilt for having comfortably migrated south before our world started inching toward dystopia.
“If you’re abroad,” says Trudeau, with no stutter or stammer, “it’s time for you to come home.”
His suggestion challenges my family’s plans. My parents, both in their fifties, planned to drive back home to Prince Edward Island on March 31, at the earliest. Leaving our reclusive condo right now, in the middle of March, when our ability to contain COVID-19 in North America is still largely unknown, seems counterintuitive. My father is immunocompromised, P.E.I. is likely to enter lockdown soon and we are comfortable here, where we can stifle our mounting stress by simply disconnecting our Wi-Fi signal. At our resort, other Canadians entertain the same plight.
“My gut is telling me to stay here,” says Rita Strongman, a retired grocery store cashier from Toronto, sitting on the porch of her rented condo, near ours. “I’m 68 and asthmatic. I feel like the last thing I want to do is go to the airport right now.”
But the pressure for citizens abroad to return to Canada mounts by the day. The Canada-U.S. border tighten. Air Canada and WestJet are just some of the airlines suspending some U.S. transborder flights. Insurance companies warn their policyholders that not coming home immediately might affect their coverage. The Canadian Snowbird Association (an advocacy group for Canadians who spend winter in warm climates) has urged its members to return home as soon as possible.
Students at Ryerson with elderly family members still abroad are particularly nervous for relatives to travel back – elders are especially high risk for serious complications from the virus. A master’s student at Ryerson University, who wishes to stay anonymous, says that she hopes her grandparents – who have been in Florida for the winter months – can return to the country safely.
“It’s a couple days’ drive [back to Canada],” says the student, before mentioning that her grandmother has an inner-ear condition which makes it difficult for her to fly. “What is worrying me too is that [my grandparents] will be staying at a hotel for a couple days.”
Yet the student says that she thinks the risk of falling ill south of the border outweighs the risk of contracting COVID-19 in travel. Those infected in the U.S. would be subjected to a health-care system that trails many countries in its ability to test patients for the disease. The U.S. also has fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy, a nation that continues to struggle to contain the virus.
“I’m kind of worried [my grandparents] are not going to leave because they feel like they can handle staying in the States,” says the student. “But even if you break a leg or something minor, everything is going to be harder to access right now.”
Difficulty in access rings true for Paula Tran, a first-year master of journalism student and Canadian-American citizen. Her father has asthma and her mother is immunocompromised; both are sequestered in their home in Delaware. Tran, 23, suffers from asthma and is wary of flying to them.
“I can’t be with my family because it’s dangerous for all of us to travel,” she says. “It’s upsetting. I really want to be home but I can’t.”
As we wait to reunite with our loved ones abroad, elderly or otherwise, we have control over little more than our immediate surroundings. Whether it’s a Toronto apartment, a rural neighbourhood or a Florida resort, it is up to us to make things better – or at least not make them worse – by staying put.