'It’s been an absolute nightmare': Canadian family pays $6,000 to come home from India amid COVID-19 pandemic

L to R: Surjit Singh Sekhon and his son Manjinder Singh Sekhon pose for a photo with Jasminder Sekhon. The father-son duo finally secured tickets home to Toronto from India after weeks of canceled flights and martial law being declared.
COVID-19 In Canada

After weeks of miscommunication, canceled flights and a countrywide shutdown, Manjinder Singh Sekhon and his father, Surjit Singh Sekhon, will be able to come home to Canada after being stuck in India during a global pandemic.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare, my dad was feeling a lot of pressure to make sure he keeps my grandfather safe and in good health,” said Jasminder Sekhon, Manjinder’s daughter.

On March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the country of 1.3 billion people would be going into a three-week-long shutdown to limit the spread of COVID-19.

As a result, police and government officials had limited non-essential travel and while living a thousand miles away, Jasminder was handed the task of bringing her family home.

This past Monday, after a weeks long ordeal, Jasminder secured two tickets to bring her family home on an Air India flight out of Amritsar to come back to Canada for Tuesday. The cost of each ticket was $2,900, which is almost three times as expensive as a one-way flight either way.

Sekhon says she’s heard from other families who have as many as four family members stuck in India, and the ticket price is what is keeping them from coming home.

“It’s price-gouging, it’s incredible that we’re being told to report on businesses engaging in the practice, but the ticket back is almost three times the regular price—it’s appalling,” she said.

‘I feel like a huge weight has been lifted’

The ordeal started weeks ago when Air India canceled the Sekhons’ flight for April 1st and the father and son were left without any clear answers on how to proceed.

“We tried contacting Air India, but their airlines are shut, we couldn’t even contact anybody there to even have a conversation,” said Jasminder. “We felt stuck.”

Sekhon said she tried repeatedly to speak to someone on the phone but to no avail, and even her emails to the Canadian High Commission in India were not getting the response she needed.

“When COVID started to accelerate in Canada, we were looking at tickets to bring my dad and grandfather back, we were just being told that no tickets were available, nobody knew what to do,” said Sekhon.

With neither the Canadian government’s help or any word from their airline, Sekhon eventually started pestering the travel agency they had booked with and after hours of messaging was able to secure the tickets.

“My family and I feel like a huge weight has been lifted, we’re so grateful to be together as a family after so much uncertainty,” she said.

According to Global Affairs Canada,  27,352 Canadians are registered in India with the Registration of Canadians Abroad Service. The registration is voluntary, and could be higher, and most like the Sekhon family were unaware of how dire the situation was when it hit.

When contacted by Yahoo News, a Global Affairs Spokesperson said they’re working with Canadians in India to come home via flights from Amritsar, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.

“Despite our best efforts, it will not be possible to ensure the return of all Canadians who wish to come home. To prepare for this, Global Affairs Canada is providing heightened advice and support to Canadians already outside of Canada or unable to return to Canada. We encourage Canadians abroad to follow the advice of local authorities,” wrote an email to Yahoo News.

There was a complete lack of clarity,’ family says

Jasminder’s grandfather, Surjit, is a lung cancer survivor, and at the age of 84, he wanted to visit India one more time while he was still in good health.

“At the time when they left, the only concern that we had was making sure that my grandpa didn’t face any health complications,” said Jasminder.

However, Surjit's diminishing health required medication and specialized bandages that needed changing every couple months, but they could not be purchased in India.

“[My dad] couldn’t just go out to the pharmacy and get him what he needs, so they can’t get access to what they need, it was a stressful situation” she said.

Another problem with the new repatriation flights being offered at the time was the Sekhons originally had direct flight tickets from Delhi to Toronto, but the new flights being offered by Air India included a layover in the U.K., which was a major concern.

“We didn’t want them to layover in Europe, because at the time, it was the epicenter of COVID-19, and with their ages we were concerned,” said Jasminder.

Over the past few weeks, Sekhon heard from Canadians who had loved ones stuck in similar predicaments, and some who couldn’t secure seats on the repatriated flights don’t know what to do.

“There was a complete lack of clarity about who they’re trying to bring home, people are literally stuck abroad and it was a fiasco,” she said.

Now, with her family back home, Sekhon intends to keep fighting for the thousands of Canadians struck abroad in India.

“Our fight is far from over...we’ll continue to push for more repatriation flights and fair pricing,” she said.