UBC researchers stranded in Peru worry about missing repatriation window
VANCOUVER -- Three researchers from the University of British Columbia are stranded in Peru as the number of international flights available becomes increasingly scarce due to the novel coronavirus.
The trio has been working alongside four other researchers from the Musagetes Foundation in Ontario.
The group has been working on a research project that focuses on Indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Their fieldwork began March 1st in northeastern Brazil.
"Coronavirus was beginning to emerge, but it really wasn’t a thing at the time,” said Rene Susa, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC.
“I certainly didn’t think that this would reach this kind of proportions.”
The team spent the first leg of their journey in a remote area, with no access to the Internet. They then crossed the border into Peru by land.
“Right after we crossed, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency,” said Vanessa Anderotti, one of the leaders of the project.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised all Canadians abroad to return home a day later and the team immediately booked flights.
“We had changed our flight to the earliest possible flight, but from Lima,” explained Anderotti.
But those flights were cancelled due to the country’s state of emergency.
The team decided it was best to continue as scheduled to their next stop, the Quecha health and education centre in Pincheq, about 30 minutes outside Cuzco.
Two team members managed to get seats on a repatriation flight out of the city.
“The system, at least up until now, has been this lottery system where there are far, far more people trying to get home than there are seats for the flights,” said Sharon Stein, another project lead.
The group was only scheduled to stay in town for four days, but has been there nearly two weeks.
“I think it’s a combination of gratitude and feeling we’re extremely lucky, because we’re being hosted by this wonderful community and this family,” said Joy Robertson of the Musagestes Foundation in Ontario. “At the same time we have a pretty high level of anxiety.”
However, the researchers don’t want to overstay their welcome and are concerned about being a burden to a community not used to many visitors. Another major concern is their ability to access the latest information on flights and advice from the Canadian government.
“We have no power at the moment, because there was a storm,” said Anderotti.
Their cell phone batteries are draining quickly and their access to the Internet is spotty at best.
“Now we are worried that if we miss this opportunity to be repatriated this week, we would have to stay here for months,” said Anderotti.
There are two seniors among them with compromised immune systems. Both are now on a priority list to come home.
“I’m in very good condition right now and I know how to take care of myself with my own medicines,” said Joyce Haruko Okano from Vancouver.
The group feels their project could be a great benefit to Canadians during this difficult time.
“Part of the research we’re doing is to learn from the strategy of well-being that Indigenous communities have developed in high-intensity struggle. Against colonialism, against predatory capitalism,” Anderotti told CTV News Vancouver.
“We are working to help as many Canadians as possible return home, but some may remain outside of the country for an indeterminate amount of time,” said Global Affairs Canada in a statement Sunday.
There are currently 398,799 Canadians signed up to the Registration of Canadians Abroad. However, registration with the service is voluntary, so that the number does not paint a complete picture of the situation.
Global Affairs says that to date, 342 loans totalling $1 million have been approved through the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad. The agency is currently processing roughly 850 loan applications.
UBC says it has been in contact with the researchers and is monitoring the situation.
“While our university community members in Peru are anxious to return to the country, we understand they are safe,” said Kurt Heinrich, a spokesperson for the university.
The team is hoping they can catch a flight sometime this week so they can reunite with their families and continue their work.
“We would like to be able to write about that and spread this knowledge and encourage people to really learn from Indigenous struggles in Indigenous practices of wellbeing so that we can weather this together,” said Anderotti.