I used to love travelling, the planning, the excitement, especially when travelling to a new city or country and the people watching. I loved it all.
Well, until my latest trip, amidst the COVID-19 surge, i.e. corona-virus trip.
The weeks leading up to a trip with my family in Thailand (planned almost for an entire year), was marred by media houses sending mixed messages about what the Corona Virus was. As I waited for airlines to cancel our trip, I waited in vain. Imagine the week and days and even night before traveling overseas where a virus, spreading by contact, making lightning speed rounds and infecting people in over 100 countries.
The days leading up to the travel time was certainly not exciting and factor in when my sons school started educating the kids on good hygiene, sparked a “mommy, don’t go!”.
My stressed tummy would last from the moment I left home, until the sudden need to return back home due to the President of the country declaring that the country was in Disaster and locking down all travel.
Having had firsthand experience, these are the checks that were in place at my time of travel March 12 – March17.
Departing South Africa:
- on entry at OR Tambo international, some people were wearing masks, but possibly 30%, mostly workers, some travellers (most foreign).
- Unlike Dubai, Bangkok and Phuket airport, I was not scanned when I entered the airport
- I was not scanned through customs/security either
- What appeared to be foreign travellers would be wearing masks
- I was not relaxed, I was petrified
As I sat at the airport, it dawned on me, it was quiet. I don’t think I’ve ever walked into an airport where it was so spacious, calm and quiet to walk though. As I walked through security check points, I had to do a double-take as I was literally the only one making my way though. I kept turning around to confirm I was in the right place and yes, I was.
A few people arrived after, but not many.
Impact: fewer people, less shopping in duty free, less need so many airport staff, from check-points to store managers. What will happen to these poor people?
The security staff wore masks and most people/travellers at this stage, not wearing masks. Okay I thought. My first noticeable “mask” trend was that most Asian-looking travellers wore their masks and most non-Asian not. I would soon see that this trend was short lived.
Okay, so …. I board my flight, still pensive, stressed, not excited about anything but an ache in my gut. Maybe I’ll feel better in Dubai.
We land in Dubai, as you disembark the plane, entering the airport you are thermos-screened. As you make your way through security, you start seeing more masks. As you enter the Duty-Free area, 50% of all people at the airport were donning masks.
Imagine the scenario of sitting next to someone with a mask, while you are trying to eat (oh and ps: eating anything with a strong smell such as curry or anything garlic while wearing definitely puts things in perspective when you hear “garlic breath” (oh holy hell!).
Even though you have to take your mask off to eat, it goes back on and it becomes a very hot and stuffy exercise, especially when you are not used to wearing one.
Then, imagine, how you feel when you sit next to someone wearing a mask on the flight, now multiple that by most of the travellers on board. Logically, I know it is for the same reason I am wearing it, but, it’s also because someone could be a carrier and does not want to spread it.
Okay, so let’s move on, we arrive in Bangkok international airport, and the first time a thermometer is aimed at your head, even though you know you are ok, when the all clear is given, a sigh of relief follows. Temperature scans when you disembark, when you check-in again and hand sanitiser is everywhere.
I had to wait for the rest of my group to arrive, but holy hell, before, I would be so happy to find a spot to sit, have a coffee, relax. Now, I was looking for an empty place, with not many people who could be in too close proximity to me. I had to touch metal objects like door handles, even after I had sanitised/washed hands (like a bathroom), touch the menu at the restaurant (gringeing).
Life is changed forever. Grab a taxi to the hotel (hand sanitiser at reception) and go and grab some food. Imagine arriving at your hotel (masks here and there), going to grab food (masks everywhere, this I don’t mind as it is hygienic) and trying to have a fun time, but not wanting to drink water from a bottle someone has touched or wanting to rinse a glass ten times before using it, or having to say I am not sharing a meal with anyone.
This changes the dynamics of social gatherings completely. I digress. We make it through the first night, then head out early am to catch another flight to Phuket. On arrival in Bangkok airport,
- temperature scan before entering
- temperature scan before boarding
- hand sanitiser provided by air hostesses on embarking and disembarking from the aircraft
On arrival in Phuket airport:
- temperature scan on arrival
- hand sanitiser all over the airport
The first real experience of how social life would change was when we went for the surprise bride to be lunch. We arrive at the restaurant, before you enter, you are required to get scanned/temperature taken. If you have a slightest fever, you are denied entry. For a brief movement, the venue made me forget about the worldly woes outside.
This was a very exclusive hotel/restaurant and they were prepared for customer safety/sanitisation. What about the little guys, the smaller stores and restaurants? This is when the gravity of the situation struck home.
Imagine going to the beach, but not wearing shorts or covering your face? Imagine not being able to go into the water for fear that someone swimming next to you has the virus and does not know it. Imagine that every time you go to a restaurant, everything and everyone is a potential contaminant.
What was once the romantic travel notion of people watching, strolling through the duty-free buzz of twinkling lights has become the center cesspool for all unknowns who will arrive and stay or depart and spread. Airports are not glamorous (anymore). Airports are now disease centers, travel bins for a lack of a better word. Travellers landing from all over the globe, interacting with knows what kind of viruses, and leaving traces of residue when they leave.
Phuket seemed to not be as affected as Bangkok, although many sanitation mechanisms in place, people were out, mask-free. It’s hot wearing a mask and a beach holiday is the one place you can truly feel the effects of the “new”.
Did the lack of masks ease my tension? Absolutely not. It made it worse. I was not comfortable “beaching”. There were no massages to be had, no markets to be bargained at and no street food to try. A beach holiday in the COVID-19 time is not a holiday.
Fast forward from the time that I left South Africa 12 March with only 7 reported Corona virus cases to 3 days later, the count is up to 60+ cases and the country goes into travel ban and lock down and I am on an island. I could not get through to my airline to change my flight, but decided to get to the airport anyway. Their service was swift and efficient, they helped me get the first flight back home (although it took 36 hours), at least I made it back. I was not in a high-risk city/country and I was self-isolated for 2 weeks. However, my husband and son also had to be “quarantined”.
Being “stranded” on an airport is scary. If I could not afford my internal flight change, I would not have made my connecting flight. Some people go on holiday and get tickets that are not flexible and as a result, cheaper. Luckily, I could get an internal flight back to Bangkok and my 36 hour journey back home began. At this stage, there was a much more tangible feeling of stress and silent panic. The queues at ticket offices grew longer and certain travellers were uncertain of how they would be allowed back into their countries.
Health links to financial well being.
If you are living below your means, any additional relating to food, medical services etc. will not be easily accessible. This means that as a government, if they don’t put formal measures, the poor will die and the rich will likely live.
This is the world we now live in.
As I sit penning these thoughts as I whisk through the air to my home country, all I can think about is my family and how the next few weeks and months will shape our lives. My view on airports is forever changed. My view on travel and “holidays” is forever changed and all I wish for is for control of something that is harmful to some more than others is managed.
At the time I wrote this, March 12, 2020 we were at 60+ COVID-19 cases.
Statistics to date (24 September 2020) with the country having moved to level 1 lockdown on Monday 21st September 2020:
- 665k cases
- 594k recovered
- 16,206 deaths
Life has changed, anxiety is high, the economy has suffered as have the people of this country. All we can do now is continue to practise good social distancing and sanitisation and keep using the term “new normal”.
Top ten travel tips if you are overseas far away from your home country:
- get to the airport and get back asap.
- wear a mask in the aircraft at minimum
- have hand sanitiser on hand and wash hands often
- try not to touch your face or anything such especially items such as restaurant menus
- carry disinfectant wipes to wipe down tray table, arm rests and most important, understand that everyone is in the same situation as that kindness goes a long way.
South Africa closed its borders to the world and internally in March 2020 and only this month is slowly re-opening to limited local and international travel again. I wrote these tips post my travel but they still apply.