The federal government is working hard to get a Canadian field hockey team stranded in South Africa back home. The situation has arisen as a result of the Omicron variant.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge called the team on Saturday to offer reassurance no stone is being left unturned, says Jenn Beagan, assistant coach of the Field Hockey Canada junior women’s national team.
“She also followed up with our team manager — for about a 20-minute conversation — just to let us know the highest levels of government are aware that we’re here, and working to get us home,” Beagan told Global News in an interview from the northwestern city of Potchefstroom.
“At the moment we’re just in a holding pattern.”
The junior women’s national team landed in South Africa on Nov. 23 to train — ahead of the league’s world cup on Dec. 5 in Potchefstroom.
Within hours, said Beagan, emails and messages started pinging her inbox, warning about an infectious new COVID-19 variant in South Africa called Omicron.
“Then we went off to training with the girls, and within a couple of hours we were then getting messaging that borders were closing down and things were progressing quite quickly,” said Beagan.
The new variant was dubbed a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.
That same day, several countries including Canada, Great Britain, India and Japan, enacted bans on travel from several southern African nations where the mutation was discovered.
The Women’s Junior World Cup was cancelled. The team has been stuck in Potchefstroom ever since.
In a written statement, Global Affairs Canada said it’s aware that some Canadians have been impacted by the travel ban, but did not address the field hockey team’s situation directly.
“We can confirm that we are receiving reports of Canadians abroad affected by these new measures. Due to privacy considerations, no further details can be provided,” wrote spokesperson Patricia Skinner.
On Twitter, Field Hockey Canada said “[we’re] working to get all our athletes and coaches home safely.”
“Parents are aware of the situation and everyone is working together to bring our team home.”
Beagan said the B.C.-based team’s 20 members and five staff have been training daily, keeping themselves occupied as they wait for news from Ottawa.
“We’ve been told to hold for 48 hours as some of the other governments — the E.U., the U.K. — make decisions on whether or not they’re going to accept flights landing from South Africa,” she explained.
“Canada is so far away we have to land in another country mid-route. There are no direct flights.”
A chartered flight is possible, she added, but all commercial flight options must be exhausted first.
The team is relatively isolated in Potchefstroom as junior teams from other countries had not arrived for training, said Beagan.
Spirits are good overall, she added, but the cancellation of the world cup has been “devastating.”
The team raised more than $160,000 to fund its participation — after becoming the first Canadian team to win gold at the Junior Pan American Games in Chile in August.
“It’s not just the cancellation of the world cup but all of the emotions around all the hard work it took to get us here,” she said.
Canada has now confirmed several of its own cases of the Omicron variant. When the field hockey team returns, members will be required to take a COVID-19 test and quarantine at a designated hotel until they receive a negative result.
Under the new travel restrictions, foreign nationals who have travelled through southern Africa in the past 14 days are prohibited from entering the country. The Canadian ban affects South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
In its written statement, Global Affairs Canada said Canadians in need of “emergency consular assistance” are encouraged to contact its 24-hour Emergency Watch and Response Centre at +1-613-996-8885 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Canadian travellers should register with the Registration of Canadians Abroad service, it added.
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