As cases of COVID-19 spiked globally, Daniela Luo took shelter in a high-rise apartment in Wuhan, China, unsure of when she would be able to escape the epicentre of the deadly virus outbreak and return home to Canada.
For more than 10 days, Luo and her nine-year-old daughter, Dominica, confined themselves to the apartment, afraid to venture outside and put themselves at risk of contracting the virus. Luo’s trip to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her parents had put them in limbo.
Wuhan has been sealed off from the rest of the country, and the world, since Jan. 23. No flights, no public transportation. The bustling city of 11 million looked like a ghost town, and as the situation became worse, Luo sunk into despair. One night she awoke from a nightmare crying. She dreamt that she ran outside without a protective mask.
Luo only wanted to take her daughter back to Canada and reunite with her husband in Vancouver. But how?
On Feb. 2, news came that the Canadian government would charter a plane to bring Canadians home from Wuhan. But this was not good news for Luo. She and her daughter were permanent residents of China and did not qualify.
“I will not give up”
Back in Vancouver, Luo’s husband, Montgomery Gisborne, was frantically calling and emailing Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian embassy in China, and the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. Any diplomatic offices he could find. None of them had a positive response.
After the first charter plane left Wuhan on Feb. 6, Canadian officials said they would send a second plane. Luo wasn’t hopeful the Canadian government would expand its evacuation efforts to help non-citizens. But her husband refused to lose hope.
“I will not give up until the flight takes off,” Gisborne promised his wife. “I’ll let our Prime Minister read our story as he reads the papers over breakfast.”
After New Canadian Media published Luo’s story of being stranded in Wuhan, Gisborne reached out to other media outlets to plead for help.
“An average of four or five reports or articles were published every day,” he said.
Gisborne estimates that about over two weeks about 70 stories were published about his wife and child stranded in China. The stories were published in both English and Mandarin media. Gisborne gave interviews to CBC, CTV, the Guardian, the Star and Vancouver-based Chinese media.
On Feb. 7, Gisborne got a call from Global Affairs Canada. His efforts paid off. Luo and Domenica were put on the list for the second chartered flight.
A long journey home
It wasn’t easy to get on the plane, though. Travellers had to make their own arrangements to reach the airport in time. Wuhan was now under severe quarantine and leaving city limits required going through many checkpoints. Luo heard that some people who left on the first flight offered to pay drivers as much as $4,000 to take them to the airport, but nobody took the offer.
The chartered flight was scheduled to leave at midnight on Feb. 10, but Luo and her daughter decided to leave in the afternoon.
“I’m so lucky a friend agreed to drive us to the airport,” Luo said, adding that, “It took us four hours to arrive at the airport instead of the usual 30 minutes.”
As for Gisborne, his mind was not at ease until his wife texted a photo of them on the plane.
Life in quarantine
The flight arrived in Vancouver on the night of Feb. 11. After a short layover they flew to CFB Trenton in Ontario. All 185 travellers would be quarantined at the military base for 14 days.
When Luo stepped off the plane, she was deeply impressed. Everyone was nice and welcoming. Their room was equipped with a microwave, TV and refrigerator and disinfected each day. Meals are delivered to them by staff in protective clothing. And although they are under quarantine, travellers are allowed outside with protective masks to get fresh air and the kids can run around.
Besides reading, watching TV and going for walks, Daniela is writing a journal to record this unforgettable experience. She said the diary will one day become a precious gift to her daughter.
When asked over WeChat video if she’s bored – Luo responds with a smile.
“Not at all. You know in PEI where we used to live, we usually did the same things in snowstorms. This is just like a long holiday.”
Meanwhile her daughter Dominica is excited that she doesn’t have any homework, since she’s not in school.
“I would like to stay here for one month,” the nine-year-old said, laughing.
On Valentine’s Day, Dominica painted a handmade card for Red Cross staff at the military base to show her gratitude. It was a drawing of a tree, symbolizing the world, and an apple representing peace.
But Luo is still worried about her parents in Wuhan. They are still in quarantine. Because of the Chinese tradition of preparing a large amount of food to celebrate the new year, they don’t have to go out often. But her father misses walking his dog. Luo video chats with them daily to make sure everything is fine.
CFB Trenton has accepted a total of 398 coronavirus evacuees. The first group finished their quarantine on Feb. 21. Luo and her daughter will get to leave on Tuesday. She has booked a flight on Feb. 26 from Toronto to Vancouver. Montgomery Gisborne will be there waiting to welcome his family home.
This story has been produced under NCM’s mentoring program. Mentor: Judy Trinh.