Coronavirus: Winnipeg travellers home after a week in limbo abroad

Three recent university graduates from Winnipeg are grateful to be home in self-isolation after they were stuck in limbo in Peru for more than a week when the South American nation closed its borders to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The young, almost life-long friends started their trip in mid-January in Colombia to celebrate their graduations, 23-year-old Grace McMorris explained in a FaceTime interview Thursday.

At that time, they weren’t overly concerned with COVID-19, having only seen news reports about the virus’s spread in Wuhan, China.

They felt safe enough to travel through Colombia and then Ecuador before going to the last leg of their trip in early March.

When they arrived in Peru March 6, expecting to make the trek to Machu Picchu, there was only one reported case of the novel coronavirus in the country.

A week later, the borders were set to close and armed soldiers were soon in the streets, enforcing social distancing to fight the pandemic.

They scrambled to get a flight home March 16 — the borders were set to close at midnight, with no more international flights allowed for at least 15 days — but they were unsuccessful.

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They resigned themselves to an Airbnb in the nation’s capital, Lima.

They heard few reassuring words from the Canadian Embassy, McMorris said, beyond being told to listen to the Peruvian government and to await word from Canada’s government as it worked to repatriate Canadians trapped abroad.

So they waited, stuck in their rented Airbnb until they heard federal Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne had secured repatriation agreements with a number of nations including Peru last Sunday.

Then other Canadians in Peru started getting emails from Canadian officials on Monday afternoon, telling them to purchase a ticket to a Tuesday repatriation flight, McMorris said.

She assumed those people were high priority, rather than healthy young women.

“We got an email from the embassy, and I remember my whole body started to shake — ‘Is this the flight email? Is this the flight email?’ — and it was,” McMorris said from self-isolation in her Winnipeg home.

“It was just so much relief, getting this flight out.”

The trio managed to get on the Tuesday afternoon flight to Toronto before flying home to Winnipeg early Wednesday morning — just hours before Trudeau announced the federal government was set to implement the Quarantine Act, enforcing mandatory self-isolation at the point of entry for all Canadians returning abroad at the threat of fines and potential prison time.

“It felt so good — it felt so nice to be in Canada, just knowing that I was that much closer to home,” McMorris said of landing on Canadian soil.

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