Like many Canadians in a creative field, Megan Wilson had long dreamed of living in New York City.
Wilson, 34, went to Ryerson University in Toronto and since 2011 has spent various stints in the U.S., for school in fashion design and to star in a reality show in Portland. Finally, she moved to Brooklyn in September 2017 where she works as the lead stylist for a sustainable fashion company.
While she loves the community she’s found there, Wilson flew back to Canada on March 18 due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
“What broke the camel’s back so to speak was when (Canadian Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau said they were going to close the borders,” Wilson said. “The fact that I couldn’t even watch (U.S. President Donald) Trump for more than about a minute, it was like OK, time to leave.”
Wilson is one of several Canadians living in the U.S. who told VICE they are fleeing back home in light of the outbreak. Most cited concerns about navigating the patchwork American healthcare system, not wanting to strain already taxed hospitals, and having anxiety over how Trump is handling the crisis, as well as a desire to be closer to family.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN millions of Americans could end up infected, and 100,000 to 200,000 may die. The death toll in New York state, which is currently on lockdown, has surpassed 1,000. Speaking to the Times, paramedics in New York City said they are fielding 7,000 911 calls a day—breaking records—and are running out of supplies, including N95 masks.
On March 21, the Canada-U.S. border closed to all non-essential travel.
On Sunday, Trump said social distancing guidelines, calling for Americans to avoid leaving their houses except for necessities, will remain in place until the end of April; many states have implemented their own stay-at-home requirements. As recently as last week, however, Trump said he wanted people back to work by Easter and was also considering opening the Canada-U.S. border by then.
As of March 31, there were more than 7,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 89 deaths in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly advised Canadians to stay at home, and every province and territory has declared a state of emergency.
As she followed both Canadian and American news from her Bushwick apartment, Wilson said her instinct was to “hunker down.” She thought she could stay isolated and help out neighbours who needed groceries. But then things got more serious.
“When I was seeing people getting really sick with lung problems, that started to worry me,” said Wilson, who has asthma.
She signed up for health insurance that costs US$230 (CA$328) a month, but said the process was complicated. While working on the reality show in Portland in 2017, she was hospitalized with no insurance, but said the production company covered the US$8,000 (CA$11,400) bill. That summer she came back to Toronto for a hyperparathyroidism-related surgery because she said the cost would have been around US$25,000 (CA$35,700) south of the border.
“It’s really confusing,” Wilson said, noting healthcare in the U.S. is run like a business venture. “It really makes you see how it’s not set up to help people who really need it.”
That, combined with the fact that she shares an apartment with two roommates and can work remotely, sealed Wilson’s decision to book a flight to Montreal, where her parents picked her up and drove her to Ottawa.
Lucas Van Meer-Mass and his wife and young daughter moved from Toronto to Philadelphia in January 2019 so that his wife, a scientist, could take on a postdoc position at Princeton University.
The couple has health insurance, but Van Meer-Mass, 37, said they still felt apprehensive about how resources would handle the pandemic.
“The healthcare system is so fractured and it’s so segregated in terms of incomes,” he said. “We didn’t know that we could have access to anything should (something) occur.”
He said they packed a couple of suitcases and caught an early morning flight to Vancouver on March 14. At some point, they’ll have to return to get the rest of their stuff. But they’ve decided they don’t want to live in the U.S. long term, largely because of the healthcare system.
“It was a real glimpse into how Americans who don’t have those benefits live. It’s quite shocking,” he said. “I felt a huge sense of relief to be back and to be around my parents.”
Dr. Claudie Bolduc, a senior resident of emergency medicine, is Canadian but lives in Los Angeles. She said it makes sense for Canadians to want to return home during this type of crisis.
“If you’re born and raised in Canada, you do have an understanding about the healthcare system. It’s very simple for the user there,” she said, whereas in the U.S. there’s no national healthcare system.
However, she said it’s worrisome that Canadians might be travelling back home from a coronavirus hotspot in the U.S.—travelling could increase the chances of becoming infected and transmitting the virus.
Dr. Greta Bauer, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Ontario, said heading back to Canada is probably more risky than staying home and isolating. She said people who do travel should try for ”contactless pick-ups”—meaning getting into a car that someone parks for you at the airport and driving yourself to where you’re staying. She also said people travelling back to Canada should be quarantining for two weeks alone, not staying with family or friends, and they should have two weeks worth of food available.
“It’s going to get worse everywhere,” she said. “You have places that will look really bad for a period of time but that doesn’t mean another place you move to won’t be in that same position in the future.”
David Lucas and his partner Sula Johnson are isolating in a house in rural Manitoba after leaving behind their apartment in Brooklyn, where they’ve been living for a year and a half.
“We were lucky there was a house that was not occupied for two weeks,” said Lucas, 41, who works in justice reform.
The couple said they are concerned about their friends and colleagues still in New York, but felt they’d be more useful helping their parents with errands. They don’t think they’ll be able to return to Brooklyn for months.
“Our hope is to be there long term and we hope that it doesn’t devastate the city in the way it looks like it will for the most vulnerable populations,” Lucas said.
But it’s not only Canadians who are seeking refuge in Canada.
New Yorker Daniel Gulda, 25, spent spring break in Winnipeg with his Canadian girlfriend. When he heard Canada and the U.S. were shutting down their shared border, he decided to ride out the pandemic in Winnipeg rather than return home.
“It just seems to be safer here compared to New York,” he said.
Gulda was critical of Trump using press conferences about coronavirus for political gain. The president recently bragged about the ratings his pressers were receiving, comparing them to The Bachelor.
“For a long time, I was kind of agnostic towards our president… I just became so fed up that there was no use of getting upset,” Gulda said. That’s changed in the past few weeks.
“This just can’t go on like this. People’s lives are at risk,” he said.
Bolduc said she believes the pandemic will put healthcare at the forefront of the upcoming U.S. federal election. She thinks it could be a turning point, as politicians realize that a crisis can’t be adequately addressed by a system that is so siloed.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said public and private hospitals will work together to share the coronavirus caseloads.
“It just highlights how important it is to have one coordinated system for healthcare,” Bolduc said.