Postal service to 150-plus countries suspended but ‘no known risk’ of coronaviruses on parcels, Canada Post says

Christmas-level‘ parcel volumes causing domestic delays

Postal services to more than 150 international destinations have been suspended by Canada Post “at the request of the receiving postal operator or due to the lack of available transportation,” the Crown corporation said in an update on April 20.

While Canada Post is still accepting letters and parcels for nearly 50 countries, including the United States, 26 of those destinations have only “partial service availability,” according to the postal service. The move, which has been in place for about a month, came in response to COVID-19, which has caused unprecedented global shutdowns, including grounded flights, since being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

“For destinations where service is still available, expect significant and unpredictable delays. Delays are the result of both limited air transportation and changes in the way postal operators deliver,” adds the April 20 update.

This March, Peter Lepold, of Kelowna, B.C., received several returned letters, one with a label reading ‘Temporary Suspension of Postal Service.’ (Submitted photo)

There were also delays within Canada, including in Ontario, where the Binbrook post office was closed for 14 days – from March 27-April 11 – after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Further east, in Newfoundland, a St. John’s mail distribution centre was closed – and delivery suspended in St. John’s and Mount Pearl – from March 25-30.

Just a few days earlier, on March 23, Canada Post made several changes to its operations – including reducing hours of service and encouraging physical distancing – as it continued to “review and quickly adapt our approach with health and safety as our primary goal.”

Other measures include a “knock, drop and go approach” for door delivery, none of which need signatures going forward. Items requiring proof of age, identification or customs payments are sent directly from Canada Post depots to a retail post office for pick-up “with no restrictions on when customers can pick up the item,” the Crown corporation added.

“Our efforts follow the direction and guidance of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the Government of Canada’s lead for COVID-19,” a Canada Post representative told CSN this March, adding the Crown corporation “enacted its corporate pandemic plan in late January.”

A large label reading, ‘Return to Sender / Temporary Suspension of Postal Service,’ was affixed to another returned letter. (Submitted photo)

‘RETURN TO SENDER’

Mail posted from Canada to overseas destinations was being returned even before the widespread postal shutdowns were enacted in early April.

On March 25, Peter Lepold, of Kelowna, B.C., received several returned letters with labels reading, “Temporary Suspension of Postal Service” and “Return to Sender / Temporary Suspension of Postal Service.” He had mailed the letters – each within customized dahlia covers – to Poland from his local post office five days earlier.

Upon peeling the label off one of the returned letters, Lepold found a handstamp reading, “RESUMED SERVICE – POSTAGE PAID.”

“Canadian mail is slowing down, too,” added Lepold, who was expecting to receive another letter – mailed via Xpressost in Ottawa on March 18 – that still hadn’t arrived at its destination in British Columbia a week later.

“Service standards for on-time delivery are being suspended. The coronavirus has an impact everywhere.”

Beneath one of the labels was a handstamp reading, ‘RESUMED SERVICE / POSTAGE PAID.’ (Submitted photo)

MAIL FROM CHINA

On Jan. 23, China Post began disinfecting all mail and postal vehicles sent through Wuhan – the original epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak – at least twice.

By mid-February, the Chinese postal service was disinfecting all of its outgoing mail with a diluted bleach-based solution.

The virus does “not survive for long on objects,” however, according to a statement issued by China Post through the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in March.

Another piece of mail was returned to Canada from China inside a clear plastic wrapper with the word ‘DISINFECTED’ on it. (Submitted photo)

“It is therefore safe to receive postal items from China.”

On Feb. 27, Toronto philatelist Derwin Mak shared an image with CSN of a package his friend mailed to an eBay buyer in China.

“The cover was returned to Canada inside a clear plastic wrapper with the word ‘DISINFECTED’ and Chinese writing (presumably meaning ‘disinfected’) on it,” said Mak.

“She is not a philatelist, so unfortunately, she threw away the plastic wrapper into the recycling bin, so we have lost that item of postal history.”

The remaining cover includes a Chinese postal label with “Removed” checked off plus another small label with Chinese writing placed over the address label. It’s believed the small label reads, “Yǐ qiān zhǐ,” which would note the addressee had moved.

An 1828 folded letter mailed from present-day Québec to France during a cholera pandemic was exposed to smoke and vinegar for disinfection. Two vertical cuts on the front helped to ensure proper disinfection. (Photo by Auktionshaus Felzmann)

MAIL IS SAFE, SAYS PHAC

Mail sent to Canada from international destinations is believed to pose no risk of spreading COVID-19, Canada Post said in a statement on its website.

“According to the PHAC, there is no known risk of coronaviruses entering Canada on parcels or packages,” Canada Post said in a statement on its website. “In general, because of poor survivability of coronaviruses on surfaces, there is a low risk of spread from products or packaging shipped over a period of days or weeks. Currently, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted by imported goods or packages.”

Concerns about safe shipping in times of health crises date bate to at least the 14th century, when an outbreak of the bubonic plague in present-day Croatia led to the concept of quarantine.

“Mail disinfection soon followed, as the then Republic of Venice extended and formalized the quarantine process to include cargo,” reads a story published March 24 by the New York Times. “Items that were considered particularly susceptible, including textiles and letters, were also subject to fumigation: dipped in or sprinkled with vinegar, then often exposed to smoke from aromatic substances, from rosemary to, in later years, chlorine. Once the items were treated, a distinctive wax seal or cancellation was usually applied to them, so the recipient would know where and when the disinfection had been carried out.”

These early postal markings were often “the only remaining evidence of the ebb and flow of disease,” which “would have been lost to history without their postal traces,” adds the Times story.

Another letter mailed in January 2002, following the mail-based anthrax attacks in the United States, was disinfected and irradiated. It sold for 180 euros an auction last July. (Photo by Auktionshaus Felzmann)

As different diseases emerged over the following centuries, mail disinfection techniques “remained largely the same.”

DISINFECTED MAIL AUCTION

Nearly 300 pieces of disinfected mail from past outbreaks crossed the auction block during a sale by Germany’s Auktionshaus Felzmann last July.

These outbreaks include yellow fever in Spain in 1804-05; cholera in Germany in 1831; and the plague in India in 1899. Mail to and from these locations was “redirected to quarantine stations where they were disinfected – by smoking them with a special powder, dipping them in vinegar or baking them in an oven,” according to the auction catalogue.

“Incisions were made and holes punched in the letters beforehand so that the contents remained intact but the viruses and germs were killed.”

One example with a connection to pre-Confederation Canada – offered as Lot 5019 – was a folded letter mailed from Trois Rivières (present-day Québec) to Lozère, France, during a cholera pandemic in 1828. Featuring two vertical cuts on the front, the letter was smoked and soaked in a vinegar bath.

While that lot went unsold, another letter – this mailed in January 2002, following the mail-based anthrax attacks in the United States – brought 180 euros (about $275 Cdn.). Mailed from Potomac, Md., to the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., features a “Mail Sanitized” stamp on the front after it was irradiated and disinfected.

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