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Canadian airlines accused of ignoring COVID precautions, denying refunds – CBC.ca

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When Bobbi Jo Green booked a flight back in May for her, her husband, and her children to see two ailing family members, she was counting on the airline’s physical distancing rules to still be in place.

But just three weeks before Green and her family were set to fly from Edmonton to Sydney, N.S., on July 17, WestJet announced it was ending its policy of leaving the middle seats on its flights empty.

“I was devastated,” Green said, noting her family spends every summer in Nova Scotia with her 93-year-old grandmother who is suffering from severe dementia and another family member with an incurable form of cancer.

“We all knew it could very well be the last summer we would spend with them.”

When Green called WestJet to see if any accommodations could be made, she told the company she has a heart condition that puts her in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

Despite her pleas, Green said the airline told her it was unable to make any special accommodations, nor would it allow her to change the date of the flight to before July 1, when the rules were relaxed, without paying a fee.

And Green’s not alone: as provinces begin to relax domestic travel restrictions, the cessation of physical distancing rules by two of Canada’s biggest airlines — WestJet and Air Canada — is causing frustration and grief among some passengers.

Gabor Lukacs, head of the advocacy group Air Passenger Rights Canada, said he has fielded countless complaints from passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which are related to the same issues: airlines refusing to offer refunds or accommodations amid the abolition of physical distancing rules.

While he acknowledges the effort to fill seats is due to airlines attempting to recoup billions in lost revenue, Lukacs argues the companies risk deterring customers from flying at all.

“The question is: do we allow economic considerations to override public health? We don’t allow supermarkets to sell spoiled meat because it’s cheaper. Are we going to allow doctors to skip disinfecting their tools to save the cost?”

There’s some evidence he’s right: a new poll conducted by Leger and the Association of Canadian Studies found 72 per cent of respondents say they are not comfortable flying now that Air Canada and WestJet have culled their seat distancing policies.

Only 22 per cent said they would be OK with flying under the newly relaxed rules.

Seat distancing was never intended to be in place permanently or throughout the pandemic.-WestJet Statement

In response to criticisms, WestJet forwarded The Canadian Press a statement from a July 3 blog post regarding changes to its seat distancing policy.

“The blocked middle seat was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic before the myriad of safety measures were put in place and mandated on board,” the statement reads.

“Seat distancing was never intended to be in place permanently or throughout the pandemic.”

A workers walks past a air purifier machine that brings in only fresh air and also measures air quality at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for a “Healthy Airport” during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The post notes a number of measures WestJet has taken to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on its flights, including mandatory masking, pre-boarding questionnaires for all passengers, temperature screening, thorough cleaning of aircraft between flights, and the restriction of in-flight dining services.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the company has also denied it’s putting passengers and staff at risk by filling flights up, pointing to other safety measures as mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Yet some passengers report first-hand experiences in which masking protocols were not followed.

‘Risking their life’

Maureen Isabel Green, 31, flew from Vancouver to Fredericton three weeks ago with Air Canada to visit her family, and said she was shocked by the lax use of masks by both airport employees and the passengers on her two connecting flights.

“I just think of all the people who are getting on a flight and risking their life, or risking the life of the people they’re going to visit, because some people don’t want to wear a mask for a few hours,” she said.

Green, who is a health-care worker, said there were numerous instances on her flight from Vancouver to Montreal where a group of young, male passengers took off their masks when flight attendants were not present.

While at the Montreal airport, Green said a man was able to board a flight without wearing a mask, simply by telling attendants he had a medical condition that prevented him from doing so.

Air travel has been at the centre of several headline-grabbing incidents throughout the pandemic — particularly since travel restrictions have been eased in some regions.

On July 2, health authorities in B.C. warned the passengers of four separate flights that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Just a day before — on the exact day the airlines ended their social distancing policies — the Nova Scotia Health Authority warned passengers of a Toronto-to-Halifax WestJet flight from the previous week that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

And on Sunday, a Halifax man reportedly walked off of a St. John’s-bound flight after learning he was the only passenger travelling within the so-called “Atlantic bubble,” sparking discussion about the effectiveness of airlines’ COVID-prevention policies.

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China sentences third Canadian to death on drug charges – CTV News

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BEIJING —
China has sentenced a third Canadian citizen to death on drug charges amid a steep decline in relations between the two countries.

The Guangzhou Municipal Intermediate Court announced Xu Weihong’s penalty on Thursday and said an alleged accomplice, Wen Guanxiong, had been given a life sentence.

Death sentences are automatically referred to China’s highest court for review.

The brief court statement gave no details but local media in the southern Chinese city at the heart of the country’s manufacturing industry said Xu and Wen had gathered ingredients and tools and began making the drug ketamine in October 2016, then stored the final product in Xu’s home in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district.

Police later confiscated more than 120 kilograms (266 pounds) of the drug from Xu’s home and another address, the reports said. Ketamine is a powerful pain killer that has become popular among club goers in China and elsewhere.

Relations between China and Canada soured over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, an executive and the daughter of the founder of Chinese tech giant Huawei, at Vancouver’s airport in late 2018. The U.S. wants her extradited to face fraud charges over the company’s dealings with Iran. Her arrest infuriated Beijing, which sees her case as a political move designed to prevent China’s rise as a global technology power.

In apparent retaliation, China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor, accusing them of vague national security crimes.

Soon after, China handed a death sentence to convicted Canadian drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg in a sudden retrial, and in April 2019, gave the death penalty to a Canadian citizen identified as Fan Wei in a multinational drug smuggling case.

China has also placed restrictions on various Canadian exports to China, including canola seed oil, in an apparent attempt to pressure Ottawa into releasing Meng.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said there was no connection between Xu’s sentencing and current China-Canada relations.

“I would like to stress that China’s judicial authorities handle the relevant case independently in strict accordance with Chinese law and legal procedures,” Wang said at a daily briefing Thursday. “This case should not inflict any impact on China-Canada relations.”

Like many Asian nations, China deals out stiff penalties for manufacturing and selling illegal drugs, including the death penalty. In December 2009, Pakistani-British businessman Akmal Shaikh was executed after being convicted of smuggling heroin, despite allegations he was mentally disturbed.

“Death sentences for drug-related crimes that are extremely dangerous will help deter and prevent such crimes,” Wang said. “China’s judicial authorities handle cases involving criminals of different nationalities in accordance with law.”

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U.S. Thousand Islands businesses feel the loss of Canadian customers – CTV Edmonton

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KINGSTON, ONT. —
As the Canada-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel, business owners on the American side say they feeling the loss of their Canadian customers.

Kassi Pharoah is a server at Buster’s Restaurant in Ogdensburg, New York, located right near the Ogdensburg International Airport.

She says it’s common for people from places like Ottawa and eastern Ontario to treat the American city as their own.

“A lot of Canadian customers, taking their animals to the vet, coming in to catch a flight, getting their cars fixed,” explains Pharoah. “Sometimes the men would go golfing and the wives would go shopping. We don’t see that anymore.”

In fact, Pharoah says Canadians accounted for about 40 per cent of their business. Over the years, some even became friends.

“Our regular customers, when some of the girls have gone on to have kids, they’ve come over with baby shower gifts. We talk about different trips we know they’re going on, we see them on the way out for their vacations, we see them on the way back as well,” she explains. “We absolutely miss them.”

While she says she understands why they’re not visiting, the loss is felt, as hours and staff are cut.

Non-essential travel restrictions have been in place across the Canada-US border since March because of COVID-19.

Corey Fram, Director of Tourism with the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, says data from Statistics Canada show that in April of 2019, about 18,000 Canadians drove across the border for day trips.

This year, with the border closed, places like Ogdensburg, Watertown, and Syracuse are feeling the effects.

“It’s a little bit difficult to kind of continue to look at this region at this time as a truly bi-national area,” he says. “So many folks are relatives, cousins, teammates, and right now we’re separated.”

Fram says businesses understand why the closures are happening, but are hoping for a way to move forward.

“These two countries rely on each other and, in particular, these two regions rely on each other,” he says. “How are we going to get back there, and when?”

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Made-in-Canada vaccine passes animal testing hurdle, seeks government funding – CTV News

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TORONTO —
A Canadian drugmaker says it has produced “compelling” early results from animal testing of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, but the government hasn’t responded to its application for funding that would allow it to advance to human clinical trials.

Calgary-based Providence Therapeutics, which designs cancer drugs using a technique called mRNA, announced Wednesday that the “preclinical” data from testing in mice showed more promising results than other notable COVID-19 research conducted with mRNA vaccines.

“I would gladly test our vaccine head-to-head against any out there,” said Chief Scientific Officer Eric Marcusson in a press release. “It is always difficult to compare preclinical results, however, I believe our results compare extremely favorably to preclinical results reported by other companies.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto conducted tests on mice and found that the vaccine candidate PTX-COVID19-B produced “robust” neutralizing antibodies, which are needed to defend cells from invading pathogens such as the novel coronavirus.

“The results coming from our first animal experiment showed that the vaccines are resulting in a strong immune response,” said Dr. Mario Ostrowski, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, in a press release. “In particular, the vaccine against the S protein produced neutralizing antibodies at higher titers than the results announced by other mRNA vaccine manufacturers.”

Brad Sorenson, president and CEO of Providence Therapeutics, told CTV News that these results show their vaccine has shown to be “equivalent or better” than those from much larger firms in the vaccine race. 

“We expected that it would work, but the results were even greater than we expected, so we were very pleased about that,” he said. “We’re very anxious to repeat this in real-life patients.”

Another notable mRNA vaccine is by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna, which has received hundreds of millions in funding from the U.S. government and entered final-stage testing last month when the first of some 30,000 Americans received the shot.

But Providence, which says it’s one of Canada’s leading mRNA vaccine producers, hasn’t heard from the government since late May and has yet to receive funding for the next stages of its testing after it submitted a $35-million proposal in April. That same month, the federal government committed more than $600 million to vaccine manufacturing and research in Canada, including clinical trials. Among projects already funded as part of that pledge is a partnership between China’s CanSino Biologics and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Sorenson said his company is expecting to be able to produce 5 million vaccines by next summer, but without help from the federal government, they are hamstrung.

“The challenge that we’re facing is, we’re not a large pharma company,” he said. “We have really good technology, fantastic scientists … but for us to go into human trials, we either need to raise more money — which we can do if we’ve got a government that is indicated that they’re interested in what we’re producing — or we need a government to sponsor those clinical trials.”

Sorenson added that if the Canadian government does not help fund their human trials, they might have to find another government that will.

“We’re at a point in a company that if the Canadian government doesn’t want to do it, we’re going to start looking elsewhere, and that’s just the reality,” he said. “We’ve got a world-class vaccine and if it’s not going to be for Canadians, it’s going to be for somebody else.”

Sorenson said he has already had “preliminary discussions” with other governments about their vaccine, primarily from individual provinces.

Meanwhile, health professionals and politicians alike are urging the government to speed its funding process for homegrown vaccines so that Canadians won’t have to wait in line for another country’s COVID-19 shot. Among those adding their voice was Alberta Sen. Doug Black, who said pressure should be kept on the government to act.

“I see the commitment that’s being made by the European and American governments to this identical technology and I’m saying, ‘Hmm, why in the name of goodness aren’t we pursuing this aggressively in Canada?’” he told The Canadian Press earlier this week. “No stone should be left unturned in pursuit of a made-in-Canada COVID solution.”

Industry Canada, which is charge of administering the $600 million to vaccine manufacturing and research in Canada, has not responded to a CTV News request for comment.

With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Ben Cousins

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