First Person: Getting home from Poland, in COVID-19 lockdown

POZNAN, Poland — When my wife and I left Canada on March 3 destined for her ailing mother’s hospital bedside, we never imagined that we would face the prospect of being in Europe and watching country after country go into various forms of lockdown — or that we would be directly affected by it.

We arrived in Poland the next day, in time to go directly from the airport to see her mother alive for the last time.

Two days later, however, the family had to face the grim reality of planning for a funeral, and we had to postpone our return home.

That first extension of what we expected would be a visit of less than a week coincided with the first positive tests for COVID-19 infections in Poland. That was also the beginning of a cascade of ever-tougher actions by the Polish government designed to protect the population from the new coronavirus that had already devastated regions of China and was quickly making its way through northern Italy and elsewhere.

We had already put off our return flights to March 17, having to wait 10 days for the funeral. But day by day, as we joined in grieving the loss of the family matriarch, the noose around the country’s travel network was tightening.

First it was schools closing, then restaurants and businesses.

We watched as local playgrounds emptied of children and people lined up metres apart in front of small bakeries.

And then came the news we suspected might come but hoped would not happen.

Poland’s national air carrier, LOT Polish Airlines, cancelled our tickets as the government announced that international flights would not be allowed into the country for 10 days.

Calling the airline to rebook flights before the skies were officially closed — before the funeral could even take place — was impossible. They weren’t answering their phones.

A quick dash to the airport didn’t help much. By the time we got there the next flights were being booked for the end of the month.

We rebooked for the earliest possible return flights, on March 29, knowing that the tickets likely would not be honoured by the airline. After all, the government had announced a 10-day moratorium on international flights but was already warning that it could be extended by a further 20 days.

As the family’s mourning continued, we were contemplating alternative routes home to Canada.

What if we drove across the German border and caught a flight from Berlin?

It was a risky proposition. We had no car and whoever drove us would have to self-isolate for two weeks after returning to Poland.

The thought was short-lived. Within hours, the German government had closed its land border crossings.

Another thought crossed my mind: What was our own government in Ottawa planning to do to help repatriate Canadians stranded in Europe?

It wasn’t that far-fetched. Canadians in China and Japan were offered help via chartered flights. More recently Canadian passengers of a cruise ship docked in California were brought home, too, all under quarantine.

An initial inquiry to the “SOS” emergency line at Global Affairs Canada dashed hopes.

“You should not depend on the Government of Canada for assistance related to your travel plans,” a response from the department read in part.

As we watched the national television news in Poland for any updates on the COVID-19 outbreak, we saw a report about the Polish government planning special flights to repatriate its own citizens from a number of cities, including Toronto.

My wife was quick to note that the aircraft were being chartered from within Poland, hinting that the planes would be flying virtually empty to Canada and other destinations.

I quickly sent another message to Global Affairs, mentioning what the Polish government was doing and questioning whether Canada had contacted Poland to see whether Canadians in Poland could fill some of those empty seats.

Within hours there was a mass email from Global Affairs to me and other Canadians who had registered as being in Poland.

“We have been informed that the national Polish carrier LOT Airlines will be operating a flight from Warsaw Chopin airport on March 17 … for Toronto,” the email read.

“Canadians wanting to leave Poland are advised to book their ticket directly (with the airline).”

Again, the carrier’s phone lines were shut down but another run to the airport ended with us securing seats for a March 18 charter.

The tickets came at a steep price. As well, we would have to make our own way to Warsaw, a four-hour drive, and back to Ottawa from Toronto. And we would have to forego the cost of our original return flights. But better to get back sooner, we agreed, and not live with the daily stress of not knowing if we would have to wait until mid-April or longer to return to Canadian soil. We will be in self-isolation, but we will be home.

The funeral was tearful, hours before we secured seats for our return flight, and it was a much smaller gathering than it otherwise would have been. Understandable in the new reality of social distancing that has gripped nations almost as quickly as the coronavirus itself.

The outbreak added to the pain for my wife’s father, who had hoped for a better sendoff for the woman who had been at his side for almost 62 years. She was the sunshine who warmed the hearts of all those she touched and a calming influence in times of distress.

Even before heading home we know there will be another flight back to Poland, when the coronavirus no longer has a grip on the world, to give her the farewell she deserved.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

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