As the federal government moves to ban flights from India and Pakistan amid surging rates of COVID-19 and the threat of additional variants of concern, there are worries about what the measure will mean for Canadians already abroad.
On Thursday, Canada announced it will ban direct flights from the two countries for a period of 30 days.
The ban will apply to both private and commercial air passenger flights. Passengers departing from either country to Canada via an indirect flight will need to test negative for the virus at their last point of departure.
"I want to say that our hearts are with the citizens of India and Pakistan, and indeed the whole region during these incredible difficult times," Health Minister Patty Hajdu said.
Earlier in the day, as anticipation about possible travel restrictions simmered, Jaskaran Sandhu, director of administration with the World Sikh Organization of Canada, told CBC News he hoped any limits on travel would include measures to bring home Canadians as quickly and safely as possible.
The last time Canada moved to limit travel, he said, the process was "less than straightforward."
Simran Bal, the daughter of an Indian store grocer in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, expressed similar fears after an emergency required her father to travel to India.
"Now we're afraid that he might be stranded there ... because he's in the more remote area. We already have family that's already stranded there. They live in England and all of their flights have already been cancelled," Bal said.
"The situation's just getting so dire."
'We're tremendously worried'
It's not yet clear what the ban will mean for Canadians currently abroad in either country.
The move comes a day after Quebec reported its first known case of the variant first identified in India, the B1617 strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant of concern was identified in a patient who had received a first dose of vaccine in January, but nevertheless became infected months later. British Columbia has also identified 39 instances of the variant.
Late Wednesday, India reported 314,644 new COVID-19 cases over the previous 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University — the highest number of infections recorded in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, several hospitals are reporting acute shortages of beds and medicine and are running on dangerously low levels of oxygen.
The New Delhi High Court on Wednesday ordered India to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to save lives. "You can't have people die because there is no oxygen. Beg, borrow or steal, it is a national emergency," the judges said.
"People are selling counterfeit packs and going door-to-door with intravenous medications," said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at McMaster University.
"We're tremendously worried," Sandhu told CBC News.
The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, "quite frankly has not stepped up to the plate to support locals, has not been taking this seriously. And the incompetence has been quite glaring as they continue to hold large political rallies in states that are holding state elections."
'Whole families are getting infected by one traveller'
Meanwhile, the situation in Ontario hospitals is growing increasingly dire. Intensive care units across the province are dealing with a record number of patients, with doctors warning whole families are ending up in hospital while they themselves are at a breaking point.
WATCH | Emergency care doctor describes North York hospital overwhelmed by COVID-19:
"The next few weeks are going to be terrible," said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency care physician in North York, one of Toronto's COVID-19 hot spots. "Our system is going to be pushed far beyond what it was designed for."
Pirzada spoke to CBC News a day after what he said was the toughest shift in his entire career, a day on which he saw approximately 20 patients in the span of just a few hours.
"Whole families are getting infected by one traveller," he said. "It's just the endless queue of them coming in."
All the while, Pirzada has had the heart-wrenching task of trying to answer the question his patients are asking: "Am I going to be OK?"
"And I can't honestly answer them honestly that they'll be fine. Because I have no idea. I tell them, 'We're going to do everything we can for you. We're gonna give you every medication we have. But we don't know.' "
Cutting travel, beefing up quarantines buys time
Shutting down travel will buy Canada time, says Pirzada.
But right now, he says the process for travellers returning to Canada during the pandemic is rife with loopholes, for example, people who avoid the mandatory three-day hotel quarantine by paying a fine.
As well, Pirzada says there's no enforced quarantine for those travelling on private planes or those who arrive at the land border, and the list of exceptions for essential travellers is a long one.
WATCH | Last Air Canada flight from India arrives in Toronto before 30-day ban:
"The fear is ... we're going to run into a variant that might even evade vaccines. So we need to slow down the spread of these things as much as possible," he said. "Otherwise, we start this pandemic all over again."
Earlier Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault sent a joint letter to the prime minister requesting stricter measures around travel, including reducing incoming international flights and more protective actions at the Canada-U.S. land border.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, whose city has been hit hard by the pandemic's third wave, issued an even more blunt call on Twitter: "Close the airport," he tweeted in reference to Pearson International — Canada's biggest and busiest airport.
Peel's regional council echoed that sentiment in a unanimous request to Trudeau to suspend inter-provincial and international leisure travel to the airport — something Thursday's measure did not address.
Chagla told CBC News Thursday he believes beefing up Canada's quarantine measures for travellers might be a better approach than "playing whack-a-mole" in trying to decide what specific flights to ban.
Regardless, both doctors say the situation in India is a grim reminder of just how crucial it is that people be vaccinated, not only in Canada, but globally.
"We can't assume that when we're protected, we're safe. Because until the whole world is safe, this will keep happening," said Pirzada.
Chagla agreed. "This is not going to end until the world gets vaccinated."