Experience: What it means to travel internationally in the time of COVID-19
We expected to be put through a series of tests on landing, but to our surprise — and concern — there was barely a mention of COVID-19.
My family had plans to travel to Las Vegas in early March for a construction exhibition, and I was dreading it from the start. Already there were warnings about possible lockdowns and a looming global crisis - we were concerned that we would be placed indefinitely in institutional quarantine in some corner of the world. Still, it was a short trip and important for our business - so we went anyway.
We had a 4-hour layover in Seattle, Washington state. The first reported US case was in Seattle, and there were already concerns of community transmission when we landed there on the 6th of March. The hope was then to contain the spread but Washington state has since reported close to 1,500 cases with over 70 deaths, trailing only New York.
We expected to be put through a series of tests on landing, but to our surprise — and concern — there was barely a mention of COVID-19 . There were some cursory warnings on TV displays that advised to wash hands regularly and cough into disposable tissues, but that was it. The immigration officer inquired about the nature of our visit, and let us pass. It was early morning, and the airport was quite deserted, but the vast majority of the people there were not wearing masks. In fact, the Indians who had disembarked from the flight were more likely to be wearing any kind of protection.
What happened in Vegas
The convention went as planned, albeit it was curtailed by a day. The crowd was huge and just a tiny sliver of them wore masks. It seemed like it was business as usual. There were scattered reports of isolated cases in some of the hotel resorts, but that was about it.
Nevada, the state in which Las Vegas lies, had reported very few cases, and no deaths during our stay until the 15th of March. However, neighbouring California saw a surge in cases, as did New York. President Trump decreed that no European flights would be allowed into the country after the 13th of March. All of a sudden, the European convention attendees dwindled as they scrambled to get home before the restrictions came into effect.
We were afraid as well… And our fears were realized soon afterwards when the European leg of our return journey was cancelled. We scrambled and managed to find a flight from San Francisco that would take us directly to Delhi.
The journey back
There were no special announcements when we boarded the flight, no health checks, or even warnings. The ground staff did ask non-Indian passport holders (there were none) to approach the desk since all visas had been suspended, but there were no other measures.
Most people on the flight wore masks and there was a general sense of wariness. We were all aware of the health check-up waiting for us at the Delhi airport and concerned that some may end up in a government facility.
Around 2 hours before arrival, the cabin crew handed over two forms that had questions regarding travel history, personal identifying information, and any symptoms of COVID-19 including a cough, fever and breathing difficulties. It also asked about underlying health conditions.
Screening at Indira Gandhi International Airport
Immediately upon disembarking, a line was formed to get through the health check. Health workers wearing masks and gloves conducted thermal scanning of every passenger. If body temperature was normal and the self-declaration form reported no symptoms, people were allowed to pass.
Everyone was palpably relieved to make it through. Self-reporting forms are, of course, rife with misinformation and misrepresentation since most people don't want to end up in a government facility, no matter the cost. Further, a fever is not the only symptom of the virus, and some doctors have remarked that slipping a crocin mid-flight is sufficient to pass the test. Still, what the screening did do was effectively collect all passenger information and establish a database to map any future transmission.
Life right now
We considered ourselves lucky to enter the country on the night of March 16th. Just the next day the Indian government announced more stringent measures - all passengers arriving from abroad will be quarantined for at least 24 hours until tests deem them COVID-19 negative.
We have been advised to self-quarantine for two weeks and limit contact with outside people as much as possible. It has been difficult - my grandmother, who lives separately, is alone, but it is considered too risky to drop in and check on her. For now, we are hunkering down at home and hoping no symptoms pop up. Thankfully, nothing to report as of yet.
Today, on the 20th of March, I got a call from the DMO (District Medical Officer). He introduced himself and confirmed our travel history, corroborated our passport numbers and contact information. He asked if we were displaying any symptoms and instructed us to go to BK Hospital (the district civil hospital of our region) should problems arise. Shortly after the call, two representatives from the hospitals knocked on our door and asked if we were all feeling normal. After checking in, they left us with a flyer and reiterated to visit the hospital if there were any concerns.
For now, we, like most of the country and countless people worldwide, are living more contained lives and hoping to emerge from these turbulent times in good health. While a lot of our prior assumptions about life have been challenged, there are small consolations as well - I’ve not spent this much time with my parents in a long time, and it is calming to just sit around and catch up. There is certainly a lot to talk about.
After the writer returned to India, the government on 19 March announced that no international commercial flights would be allowed to land in India between 22 March and the midnight of 28 March.
For more tips, read our article on Coronavirus Infection: Symptoms, Types, Diagnosis and Treatment.
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