Cash-strapped and stranded abroad, hundreds of Canadians are waiting for an emergency loan from the federal government because they need money to pay for hotels or book flights.
The Canadian government has paid out $1.8 million in loans to 525 recipients through the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad. It is currently processing another 800 loan applications, according to Global Affairs Canada.
The repayable loan of up to $5,000 is intended to cover flights back to Canada, or basic expenses, such as hotels and food, until citizens can return home. There are currently 391,451 Canadians signed up to the Registration of Canadians Abroad.
Kimberley Bradley, 50, of Pembroke, Ont., says she needs the emergency loan to cover her hotel bill in Varadero, Cuba. She’s been forced into quarantine with hundreds of other travellers and only has enough cash to cover four more nights, she said.
“People have run out out of money. They’re waiting on emergency loans, begging the hotels to wait,” she said. “I have no room left on my credit card.”
Bradley said she has booked three different commercial flights out of Cuba in the past 10 days, each paid for on her credit card, but they’ve all been cancelled. Each time, she received credit for future travel but no refund.
Bradley started the loan application process eight days ago. She received an email from Canada’s emergency response centre today that said, “Due to a high volume of requests, we will not be able to give updates on the status of individual loan applications.” The most recent communication warned the process could take a week.
In a statement released Tuesday, Global Affairs Canada said it is working “around the clock” to ensure it is “providing emergency assistance and consular services to Canadians abroad who need it.”
Bradley, who has an autoimmune disease that is exacerbated by the cold, arrived in Cuba in early January. She rented an apartment in a fishing village for six months, she said.
When COVID-19 concerns escalated in early March, she weighed her options. She says she didn’t have a place to quarantine in Ontario because she lives with her daughter, who is an essential service worker. Bradley also survives on a disability pension and had pre-paid six months’ rent in Cuba.
That plan fell apart last Tuesday, when Cuban immigration officials decided to force all foreigners into quarantine in hotels to try to control the fast-spreading virus.
“A lot of people missed opportunities to take flights because they thought they were just going to wait things out here,” Bradley said.
Now, she’s forced to pay $50 a night at the Barcelo Solymar hotel, which she said is beautiful, with kind staff, but far beyond her tight budget.
There are no commercial flights in or out of Cuba, but Bradley was informed late Wednesday that the Canadian government is chartering a flight out on Sunday. She can’t afford the ticket unless she receives the loan in time, she said.
Toronto resident Alexandra Acosta helped her 62-year-old father apply for a $1,000 emergency loan last week to go toward a plane ticket home from Lima, Peru.
Given the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and her own circumstances, Acosta couldn’t afford to loan him money herself, she said.
“I have enough money to last me for my groceries. My husband’s not working. I’m not working. You can only use your credit card so much,” she said.
Her father, Juan Acosta, just received an email from the Canadian Embassy in Lima that he was denied the loan. The rejection email didn’t specify why, but said: “This program is intended to provide assistance to Canadian citizens who plan to return to Canada, have been prevented from doing so because of COVID-19, and have no other source of funds.”
“If he was here with me, he would be . in this house, so I could make sure he is OK,” she said. “You gotta take care of your parents because they took care of you.”
Acosta said she searched for a commercial flight out of Peru for her father last month after the Canadian government warned travellers that they should return home while they still can. She wasn’t successful.
She said her father moved from Canada to Peru two years ago to pursue a business opportunity and care for his elderly father. Acosta concedes that Peru is her father’s primary residence these days, but she says he’s a Canadian citizen and she wants him home.
Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master’s in international human rights law from the University of Oxford.