Calgary family stranded in Wuhan 'relieved' as Canadian airlift announced

Calgary family stranded in Wuhan 'relieved' as Canadian airlift announced

A Calgary man trapped in Wuhan with his family says they are "very relieved" after the federal government announced on Monday that permanent Canadian residents with kids will be allowed to return home.

Bin Zhang, 33, is a Chinese citizen who has lived in Calgary since 2005.

He told CBC News that he arrived in Wuhan, the city where he was born, with his wife and their two young children on Dec. 13 to visit relatives.

What they didn't yet know, Zhang said, was that the city was already becoming the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

It has since claimed the lives of 362 people worldwide.

"When we first arrived … we were completely unaware of the situation," Zhang said.

"[We] went out to have lunch, dinner, went to different parks, different places. We went on as if everything was normal."

Family left in limbo

Zhang said that just after Christmas, he returned briefly to Canada alone for work, when he first began hearing about a respiratory illness in China. 

"Some Canadian friends of mine were [asking], 'Hey, do you know about this pneumonia outbreak that's happening in Wuhan?' And I said, 'No, I don't,'" Zhang said.

He returned to Wuhan in late January to spend Chinese New Year with his family, Zhang said.

But Zhang, his wife and their children were left in limbo as the city was locked down and their Feb. 1 flight back to Canada was cancelled.

It was part of China's containment efforts that began with the suspension of plane, train and bus links to Wuhan.

That lockdown has expanded to 17 cities affecting more than 50 million people in what has become the most far-reaching disease-control measures ever imposed.

'Like we won the lottery'

Before the airlift was announced, Zhang told the CBC News that his family was trying to maintain a positive outlook but were anxious to come back to Canada.

Now that the Chinese government has agreed upon a chartered flight to take permanent residents with children back to Canada, Zhang says he is immensely relieved.

"We are very happy," said Zhang.

"My wife and I, we were lying in bed watching [the press conference] from my cellphone, and … we were very, very excited. It felt like we won the lottery or something."

Supplied by Bin Zhang.

The federal government says that during talks with Chinese authorities about repatriating Canadian residents, its priority was keeping families together.

"We insisted on the concept of family unity," Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said at the press conference. 

Child-free permanent residents stuck

Family unity worked in favour of the Zhangs, but it is likely that not every permanent Canadian resident will be leaving Wuhan.

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, Champagne said, Beijing won't allow permanent residents without children to leave the quarantine zone.

"If we were just permanent residents without kids, I don't think there's any hope of being repatriated by the Canadian government," Zhang said. "But I don't know how many people are like that in Wuhan."

'Don't you be sick right now'

Federal officials are now on the ground in Wuhan to co-ordinate the evacuation of Canadians trapped in the region.

Champagne said there are 280 Canadian passport-holders, and 24 others, who want to board the chartered flight.

A timeline has not yet been established, but Zhang said his wife is already eagerly awaiting their departure.

"Oh, she's very excited. She's very, very happy. She was just as anxious as I was, but now after the news conference, we are all very relieved," Zhang said.

The final hurdle for the Zhangs is to stay healthy; Canadian residents presenting symptoms will not be allowed to get on the plane home.

"Nobody is having any symptoms," Zhang said.

"[But] it is a stressful experience because even if I give one little cough, my wife will look at me … like, 'Don't you be sick right now.' That's what her eyes are telling me."