Marc Savard wasn’t sure what to expect as he arrived in Vancouver.
He had been living in Wuhan, China, for two months and was returning to Nelson for a holiday break with family when his flight landed on Jan. 20. At that point novel coronavirus was spreading, but it was still business as usual in the city.
But Savard thought there was a chance he wouldn’t be allowed to pass through customs.
“The officer, she asked me where I was coming from,” he said. “I was on a flight from Shanghai so what was I doing in China? I said ‘I’m actually working in Wuhan.’ She said, ‘Oh, are you sick?’ I said no.”
She welcomed him back home and waved him through security. Two days later Wuhan closed its airport and rail stations. The city has been under quarantine ever since, and now Savard isn’t sure when he’ll return.
The specific strain of coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV has infected 40,600 people as of Monday, all but 429 of whom are in China, and 909 people have died according to global health authorities. The majority of cases have been in the province of Hubei, which includes Wuhan. China’s National Health Commission said 97 people died on Sunday in Hubei due to the virus.
Savard, 46, has lived in Nelson with his wife and two sons for 11 years. Last year he was hired by Maple Leaf International Schools to teach in Wuhan. His family was supposed to go with him, but they stayed behind in Nelson when the move was delayed from August to November.
So Savard went on his own to live and work in the city of 11 million people. He’s been a teacher for over 20 years and had taught abroad before, so the experience was nothing new. But on Dec. 31, just over a month after he arrived, the first case of coronavirus was reported in Wuhan.
Early speculation at his school was that SARS had returned. The 2002-03 epidemic also began in China and killed 774 people.
This was something new, though. The first death related to coronavirus occurred Jan. 11, but, as he prepared to leave for a break that coincided with Chinese New Year, Savard hadn’t noticed many signs of the outbreak in the city. Perhaps, he said, more people were wearing masks.
“It’s a very small minority of people who wear masks [in Wuhan]. But in the school too, more teachers wore masks.”
When Savard returned to Nelson he consulted with a doctor, who told him not to worry if he had no symptoms. But the next weekend, on a trip to Kelowna, he began to feel ill. He visited a hospital, was tested, and quarantined himself in his hotel and later his home while he waited several days for results to return.
“Honestly, it’s probably never fun to be sick, but I was never afraid because I’m healthy and in good shape,” he said. “It’s just going to be unpleasant, but I never thought about death.”
It turned out to just be the common cold.
He feels fine now, but that hasn’t stopped people from approaching him with caution. Some take a step back when they find out he was in Wuhan. Players on his local hockey team wanted to know how he was feeling. He even received an email prior to a dentist appointment asking how his health was.
At first this annoyed Savard. Didn’t people trust him?
“People have a hard time trusting information,” he said. “But I’ve learned something about myself, too. I’m not going to take this as an insult. I’m just going to be there to inform and happy to share, inform, educate people.”
That has meant doing his best to calm the fears around him as conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins spread. Just seven cases have been identified in Canada, none of them fatal.
A colleague of his who is Chinese-Canadian is among those in a two-week quarantine after a plane carrying 176 people returning from China landed in Trenton, Ont., on Friday.
Savard, who is Caucasian, wonders what reaction his friend will face when he eventually leaves quarantine.
“I’m surprised by how many humans’ filter is so slim on critical thinking,” he said. “He’s Chinese? How long have they been here? Maybe they’ve never been [to China].”
Savard’s school told him not to book a return flight. For now, he’s spending time with his family, preparing online lessons for his students and considering looking for work in Nelson.
But mostly, he’s just waiting.
“What can I do? I’m not going to get stressed out. I’m here with my family and I’ll just wait to see what happens.”