By Sarvesh Talreja Mar. 10, 2020
Paranoia was my co-passenger on the flight to Bali. We were handed small, yellow forms from the Indonesian Health Ministry to self-declare any symptoms. This caused me a fright, because as someone who passive smokes by calling Mumbai home, I’ve had a small cough for as long as I remember.
Before a trip abroad, my browser history is usually full of searches for things to do at my destination. This trip, however, was different. A plan to go scuba-diving in Indonesia quickly devolved into looking up the fine print in insurance policies, contemplating buying assorted medical masks, and googling the keywords “Bali”, “Covid-19”, and “coronavirus” every three hours. This, ladies and germs, is not what I could call a “vacay vibe”.
Despite this mood-killing global epidemic and WhatsApp-fuelled panic from family and friends, I bravely (or stupidly) decided to go ahead with the trip. That is how I found myself looking the coronavirus directly in the eyes at Mumbai airport – I had no choice since half the people had the rest of their faces buried in masks. In times of widespread fear, there are two kinds of people: those who err on the side of caution, and those with blind faith in their insurance policies. “This virus is taking all the fun out of T2 selfies, yaar,” said a middle-aged man upset with how his mask clashed with his sports cap (worn indoors, at 9 pm). For the record, no masks were on airport security staff or the airline’s employees.
With these stringent screening measures in place, I managed to brave all of that and landed at Changi airport in Singapore for my connecting flight. Here, people from all over the world cross paths as they hop from one country to the next. I was surrounded by all kinds of travellers: Europeans, Indians, and Americans. But the one group that most people tended to avoid even as they kept mostly to themselves were South-East Asians. The coronavirus scare seemed to have given bias and racism an all-access pass to the airport. Curiously, I only spotted five people (not airport staff) wearing masks at Changi, and funnily enough, four of them were Indians.
Paranoia was my co-passenger on the flight to Bali as well. We were handed small, yellow forms from the Indonesian Health Ministry to self-declare any symptoms. This caused me a fright, because as someone who passive smokes by calling Mumbai home, I’ve had a small cough for as long as I remember. Everyone has a mild headache from fear, panic, stress, or maybe even jet lag while going for vacation, but it’s not the kind that would be a declared symptom. No, thank you very much.
In terms of statistics, we still live in a world where tuberculosis, cancer, murder, road accidents, and hunger kill more people a day than Covid-19 has managed to get to so far.
My week-long stay in Bali was, broadly put, smooth. It was also relaxing, or at least as relaxing as a trip undercut with recurrent anxiety about catching a virus could be. There’s constant caution in the air as we put regulators in our mouths before jumping off boats. It’s like being at a meaty, boozy bottomless brunch most of the time, interjected with the slow-motion visual of the cook sneezing on your favourite dish.
During my time in Bali, there were zero cases detected. And in passing through Singapore’s Changi airport, I felt like their authorities manage things so much better than my bank balance after credit card payments. I was temperature-screened at both Changi and Mumbai on the way back: Cameras detected my body heat at Changi, and and a tired bureaucrat aimed a temperature gun at travellers’ equally tired faces at T2 at 11 pm. Despite the exhaustion from filling out all those forms, I displayed no suspicious symptoms.
With stringent screening measures in place, I managed to brave all of that and landed at Changi airport in Singapore for my connecting flight.
Even so, I was asked to work from home by my office once I returned. To be fair, I may have wanted the same had it been somebody else coming back from a foreign vacation.
That’s the thing with outbreaks: they raise the level of uncertainty. Mundane acts are weighed down with fear, caution, and the anticipation of something worse. Here’s some stuff you should know about Covid-19: it’s not going to kill you unless you have a horrible immune system. It’s literally like having the flu, which is what white people call a cold. Wash your hands and be cautious. Tune into your body and see if you really have a dry cough, are sneezing a lot more than usual, or have any of the other symptoms listed on the WHO website.
Most importantly, chill out. Breathe. You probably don’t have it. Your friend probably doesn’t have it either. In terms of statistics, we still live in a world where tuberculosis, cancer, murder, road accidents, and hunger kill more people a day than Covid-19 has managed to get to so far. There are authorities actually doing their job in all parts of the world to prevent, contain, and cure this virus and it will pass.
Until it does, be nicer to people who have travelled away. They have a greater stake in their life than you do. They’ve been tested by airports. They care about the people around them, and would have gotten a test out of the sheer chatter about it around them. Maybe shake their hand, look them in the eye, and ask them with your utmost sincerity, “So, how was Wuhan?”