Coronavirus: Ottawa urges all Canadians to come home while they can

Michel COMTE
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured February 14, 2020, has asked Canadians to avoid all but essential foreign travel (AFP Photo/Thomas KIENZLE)

Ottawa (AFP) - Ottawa on Saturday urged all Canadians abroad to return home while they still can, as nations around the world moved to restrict travel to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

The guidance followed aggressive measures and money to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus announced by the federal government a day earlier, including asking Canadians to avoid all but essential foreign travel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government, however, has so far resisted growing calls to limit incoming travelers after the United States banned flights from Europe.

"We recommend that Canadian travelers return to Canada via commercial means while they remain available," Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne tweeted.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed Europe as the epicentre of the pandemic after a dramatic slump in new cases in China, where the virus first emerged in December last year.

Airlines have canceled thousands of flights worldwide and some airports have shut terminals.

The United States extended a travel ban imposed on European nations to Britain and Ireland as of Monday, while European nations and others ramped up border controls.

"Airlines have cancelled flights. New restrictions may be imposed with little warning. Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected," Canada's foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Find out what commercial options are still available to return to Canada. Consider returning to Canada earlier than planned if these options are becoming more limited," it said.

Earlier, Quebec Premier Francois Legault had urged more than 300,000 "snowbirds" -- Canadian retirees who spend winters in sunny US states -- to fly back to Canada now.

"If I were them, I'd come home as soon as possible," Legault said of the "snowbirds" who live up to six months each year in the United States, warning that they risked being stranded as fewer international flights were likely to be available in coming weeks.

Florida, California, Arizona, Hawaii, and Texas are the most popular US destinations for Canadian "snowbirds."

As of 1300 GMT Saturday, said Health Canada, 193 cases of the COVID-19 virus have been confirmed in Canada, including one death.

Quebec, with 21 cases but 853 people under investigation, has taken among the strongest measures in the country to try to prevent the spread of the illness, as of Saturday closing schools, banning visits to hospitals and seniors residences, and asking all persons over 70 to stay home.

Other Canadian political leaders, meanwhile, urged against panic shopping and hoarding as Canadians rushed to empty store shelves of groceries, toilet paper, and over-the-counter cold and flu medicines.

One extreme case involved a couple in Vancouver who cleaned out Lysol disinfecting wipes and liquids from area stores and resold them online at a huge markup.

A photo published in the Toronto Star showed the husband and wife loading up more than 40 bulk cases of wipes outside a Costco store into the back of a pick-up truck.

Online retailer Amazon reportedly suspended their account on Friday after a public outcry, citing its policy against "price gouging."

"We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis," Amazon told the Star, adding that it had recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of similar offers.