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Vancouver lawyer caught by COVID-19 crisis in Peru

Friday, April 03, 2020 @ 12:56 PM | By Christopher Guly


Vancouver lawyer Peter Swanson came close to visiting a historic site on his bucket list last month until what has arguably become the world’s most consequential health crisis scuttled that goal.

On the morning of March 14, Swanson, a founding partner of Bernard LLP who primarily practises maritime law, flew to Cusco, Peru, from Rio de Janeiro, where he was attending the 21st annual International Congress of Maritime Arbitrators.

On his first trip to South America, the plan was to make the 80-kilometre journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca citadel atop a 2,430-metre mountain ridge that has become one of Peru’s main tourist attractions.

But Swanson never made the trek after Peruvian authorities started to lock the country down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He managed to visit the Sacred Valley of the Incas, not far from Cusco, before he would soon find himself sequestered at the boutique hotel he was staying at on March 15.

“That night around 10 o’clock, I got a knock on the door from the manager saying that the border is closing tomorrow at midnight,” said Swanson in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver where he is self-isolating with his wife, son and three Chihuahuas.

He went online trying to find a flight home from Peru, facing the added challenge of locating a connection from Cusco to Lima.

Vancouver lawyer Peter Swanson, Bernard LLP, flew to Cusco, Peru, from Rio de Janeiro, where he was attending the 21st annual International Congress of Maritime Arbitrators.

“I thought a couple of times I got a seat after putting in my credit card information and pressed the purchase button, and it churned away and eventually spat back, ‘transaction can’t be completed, try later.’ ”

Swanson, who also practises health law, then tried to travel from Cusco to Bogota, Colombia, or Santa Cruz, Bolivia, but he couldn’t find any available flights that would bring him home to Canada. Meanwhile, the hotel’s restaurant closed, so Swanson moved to another hotel with an open restaurant. It too was shuttered, so Swanson had to rely on room service for his meals in the hotel.

“We could still go outside, but only between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. because there was a curfew,” he explained. “Streets were pretty empty, and police were everywhere and would move you along if they thought you were lingering. Eventually, they wanted everyone to wear a facemask.”

Fortunately, Swanson escaped the situation facing people staying at a hostel near Cusco under quarantine after a guest tested positive for COVID-19, and a Canadian couple remains in lockdown there until April 12.

Still, Swanson ended up spending two weeks in Peru.

“Getting out was a big issue,” he said.

“The federal government seemed to initially focus on a loan program, which I think most people weren’t looking for. I didn’t need the $5,000 loan, and even if I did, it was of no use because I couldn’t find a flight! The Canadian government needed to sit down with the Peruvians and figure out how to get permission to have flights come and get Canadians.”

“The stories we heard were that the Israelis and Germans were there in a matter of days getting their people out, and that Mexicans were there in the first week.”

Global Affairs Canada eventually came through when it chartered planes to rescue Canadians from Peru. Swanson paid about $275 to fly from Cusco to Lima on Avianca — a Colombian airline — and some $1,400 for his Air Canada flight from Lima to Toronto.

The Canadian Embassy in Lima also organized ground transportation to bring him and other Canadians to the Cusco airport.

Photo taken by Peter Swanson on the tarmac at Lima Airport March 27 after flight from Cusco, waiting to board Air Canada flight for Toronto.

Swanson credited the Twitter feeds of Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Ralph Jensen, Canada’s ambassador to Peru, with providing “reliable information that you could actually count on.”

If there was a silver lining, Swanson did not have to fly from Lima through the U.S. (via Houston and San Francisco) to Vancouver as was originally scheduled.

However, in hindsight, he would have skipped the side trip to Peru and returned home from Brazil where at the weeklong maritime arbitrators’ conference in Rio, delegates were avoiding handshakes and using hand sanitizers.

“The one thing that never ever crossed my mind was the thought that Peru would lock down its borders and stop us from leaving,” said Swanson. “I thought maybe I might have trouble getting back from the U.S.”

But he also believes the Peruvian government was wise to close the country to foreign traffic.

“I suspect that as a result, they’re going to have a better rate of control of COVID-19 than other countries,” said Swanson, who thinks the federal government “wasted a week” before repatriating Canadians stuck in Peru.

With an estimated population of 33 million, Peru had 1,414 cases of COVID-19 and recorded 55 deaths as of April 2, when Canada, which has a population of about 37.7 million, reported 11,268 cases and 138 deaths.

Swanson, 59, nevertheless acknowledged that contracting the virus in Cusco was a concern.

“Getting a respiratory illness at an altitude of 3,400 metres probably isn’t a good thing because you would struggle breathing,” he said. “I didn’t have any issue when I was there, but I sure was worried about getting sick and didn’t know what quality of health care I would get.”

But Swanson added that he plans to one day return to Peru.

“I now have an unfinished project going to Machu Picchu,” he said. “I think I’m one of a handful of people who was in Cusco who never made it there.”

Photos courtesy of Peter Swanson