The pandemic threat to travel
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - July 4, 2020 - 12:00am

I really wouldn’t do it unless you have a very good reason. Not only is there the risk of being infected yourself, but there’s also the risk of spreading it to others without even knowing that you have it. So little is known about this disease that it’s easy to think that the risk might be worth it, even though the opposite is just as true: that it might not, and if there’s the smallest risk of making someone else ill, would your conscience let you live with it?

Travel is part of my DNA, as a child of exile and lifelong migrant to seven countries. Choosing not to do something as identity-denying and counter culture as leaving one place and arriving at another has been a hardship but also a revelation, made bearable precisely because it is a CHOICE. Previously, I would travel for pleasure and adventure, now I travel despite the dangers. There’s a straight line from the personal to the global, with air travel and tourism industries facing the prospect of severe lack of demand.

I boarded a plane in London a few days ago, having fully considered the risks and benefits, and like WB Yeats’ Irish airman “I balanced all, brought all to mind.” I’m writing about the journey so you can get a sense of the new normal in travel that millions of Filipino migrant workers are facing.

My mother has a birthday coming. Every celebration of life is also a silent acknowledgment that there is also an end to life, so I made plans to ensure I would be in Manila and out of quarantine by her birthday. The sad truth is that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 make it impossible for families scattered around the world to reunite when health or other crises strike.

I made doubly sure I would be there making two reservations – one on Singapore Airlines (which subsequently cancelled both the London to Singapore leg and the Singapore Manila leg) and one direct flight from London to Manila on Philippine Airlines. I duly filled in the online form and got a QR code, downloaded and completed another form, and booked myself in an approved hotel with an airport transfer where I could wait for the result of the PCR swab test that was to be taken on arrival.

Of course the possibility I hadn’t considered struck like a bolt out of the blue. PAL sent an email two days before my scheduled departure to say that the flight had been changed to arrive in Cebu where I was to go through the quarantine procedures and connect to Manila two whole days after arriving! I hurriedly booked a room and requested an airport transfer online. Of course I had to cancel my previous booking at the Makati hotel and could only hope that they would refund the payment I had already made.

Having gratefully accepted a lift from the friend I’d been staying with, I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 for the great journey two and a bit hours before scheduled departure. They were taking health and safety very seriously, with only a few flights departing from what is normally one of the busiest airports in the world. Passengers checking in for two flights leaving at around the same time as mine were lined up outside the building and only allowed in 10 at a time. There were people standing around to help if necessary and, I suspect, to break it up if people started getting too close to each other.

Check-in was straightforward and the process quicker than usual but by the time I got through security there were only 15 minutes left before the flight was due to depart and the assigned gate was a 10 minute walk away. In the end the plane didn’t leave till around an hour after its scheduled departure. Flight attendants wore full length smocks over their normal uniform, face masks, shields and gloves, but were as helpful and friendly as ever. Distancing on the plane must be costing the airlines a lot of money. Every other seat was deliberately kept empty. It still felt a bit pointless as we were about to spend 13 hours in close proximity. Passengers had clearly prepared, with most also wearing shields as well as masks.

During the flight we were provided with a sheaf of forms to complete, with even more given out just before landing. Disembarkation was done in small groups. The procedures at Mactan Cebu International Airport were admirably efficient with very few people around. Some of the forms were taken with my temperature as soon as I got off the plane. Then, after immigration but before baggage reclaim, we were ushered along to pay P4,500 for our rapid swab test before undergoing the test itself. The nasal one is pretty unpleasant but no big deal.

As I went to collect my luggage, I checked my email to discover the hotel I’d booked was not approved and I had nowhere to stay! Luckily there were Board of Tourism staff at the airport to help out and my problem was quickly solved. 15 hours after departure and the first leg was over and I crashed from the anxiety, jetlag and bad food.

The test result arrived the next morning, and though it was inexplicably provided to the hotel rather than to myself (surely that’s a privacy breach?), it came much sooner than I’d expected. It was negative, so I didn’t make a fuss.

The flight to Manila had absolutely no distancing measures in place. I asked to be reseated to get a row to myself. The stress wasn’t improved by an attempted landing that was aborted at the last minute “because of  windshift.” Everyone piled on and off in the usual scrum that was newly horrifying. There were no checks coming off the plane in Manila and I still have a bunch of forms that no one ever asked for, nor was the online form and QR code I received ever needed, as far as I know.

The whole thing was quite mystifying and painfully protracted. I got the sense that everyone else knew what was going on and that I was being shuffled around a massive bureaucracy that is making uncoordinated decisions that aren’t necessarily for the benefit of the public, and doesn’t consider it necessary to explain them.

Home now, and I’m still more than a week away from it being wise to get closer than two meters to anyone. That will pass. What’s far stranger is getting to grips with the implications of not travelling and what that will mean for how I think about myself, and how it will affect my relationships and future. These are reassessments facing millions of people that are likely to have historic and global repercussions.

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