By Kumar David –
This is not a personal story though it’s based on experience. Hundreds even thousands experience it every day. Nor is it a complaint-filed grumble; actually, it has made me a minor celebrity among friends and family. It’s a story about how COVID (CV) has stood everything that has long been taken for granted on its head. It’s a story about an inconspicuous chap KD who made a trip from CMB to a destination further east HKG. Our intrepid warrior tilted not at mere windmills but took on airports, airplanes, healthcare bureaucrats and government bullies. Come on, give him two cheers.
The first shock was before he purchased the air-ticket. Though starting point and destination are five hours apart on a non-stop hop there are no direct flights from CMB to any neighbouring Asian city – Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei or Jakarta. The only way to get anywhere in the region is to take a Middle East carrier to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi (call it DZZ) and then fly all the way east again to the destination. Hence a one-way economy ticket to any of these destination from CMB which used to cost about Rs 50,000 is now between Rs 145,000 and Rs 230,000. It’s crazy! The same carrier will fly you from CMB to New York or Los Angeles westward via the same Middle East hub for about Rs 90,000; there is no logical or illogical explanation airlines attempt to offer.
The second experience in this droll story unfolds two days before departure from CMB. A CV-negative certificate from an ISO Certified (that is a recognised) hospital or clinic, issued within 72 hours of boarding is a must. Ha you think three days, that’s easy! Keep dreaming. Say you make a 7 am appointment at reputed institution, say AsH on Milk Mansion Avenue which promises the certificate by 6pm. With his flight scheduled for 2 am next morning AsH kept KD on tenterhooks prevaricating with one excuse or another. He finally had it in hand at 10pm and rushed directly to the airport. The staff at AsH are most courteous and helpful; they kept bugging the laboratory and did all they could to keep KD’s spirits up. (Thank you Roshani, Dinky and Angelo if you read this). The problem is the AsH administrative system; it’s just chaotic. You may say “Come on, your sample was taken at 7am, the flight is at 2 am early next morning; that’s 19 hours, so it’s safe”. Not so; read on.
To emplane for HKG you have to get your smart-mobile on-line, log into HKG Immigration and navigate till after a godforsaken search you locate a form to be perfected and submitted online; not at leisure but only within 48 hours of departure. A QR-code is promptly returned. (QR is the box with mangle of worms in it). Carefully save that till you reach HKG or else no one knows what torture one will be subjected to; maybe drawn, sawed and quartered. In any case the airline will not let you board till it sees the QR. Then comes another hiccup. Whichever outward flight one takes to DZZ, arrival is at about 5am, but all HKG connections depart at about 2am (plus or minus an hour or two). Hence KD had a 21 to 23-hour layover to next morning’s connection. Adding 23 to 19 means 42 hours between sample collection and departure from DZZ. So, could KD be safely within the 72-hour deadline?
No luck! HKG suddenly reduced the minimum time between CV sampling and boarding of passengers from DZZ from 72 hours to 48 hours. KD now has a six-hour (48-42) window and it was getting scary. International air rules oblige airlines to provide hotel accommodation if a layover exceeds eight hours, but KD had no such luck with airline EK during his 23-hour layover he. Having already walked around the duty-free arcades for 23 hours KD didn’t want to be dragged off to – where, lock-up, asylum? No one knows or will admit to knowing what they do to connecting passengers whose CV certificates expire before the next boarding, due to delays in flight departure. KD doubted they serve scotch and soda with a cube of ice in Middle Eastern dungeons. Thankfully it was only a one-hour delay; so, he managed to clamber on board with four hours to spare on his CV report.
The CMB to DZZ leg was full with every seat taken, mostly were ladies travelling to the Middle East for employment. On arrival KD noted that DZZ was moderately busy, not chock a full as before though at times it seemed quite busy. KD has a head for numbers and scrutinising the departure board for 20+ hours he did a bit of mental arithmetic and reckoned there are 200 departures, that is 400 operations, every day. Hence DZZ is far from shut down, unlike the ghost airport CMB. As he later discovered HKG runs about 100 operations a day instead of its pre-CV bustle of maybe 600 or more per day. The flight from DZZ to HKG was via Bangkok; the first leg was three-quarters full but there were a mere 50 people in that 300-seat aircraft on the second BKK-HKG leg.
Now the final act of the drama. HKG is smart and high-tech, its government servants efficient and polite; but CV has sent all overboard. On arrival KD was not allowed to clear immigration or collect luggage; he was steered with the 50 others into the custody of the health authorities who have taken over a whole floor in an airport wing. And here began a ritual. First an officer standing next to KD phoned him to hear the ring and confirm the number. Then he had to get his smart phone to talk to cyberspace and download an app called ‘Stay Home Safe’. Next an interview and the usual questions “where have you come from; where have you been in the last 14 days” etc. A tag with a number was hung round his neck and then watch a video about self-collection of a deep-throat sample; off into a cubicle, spit into a paper funnel and collect in a vial, always obedient to the video. Hand over the sample only to be given a second sample collection pack because on the tenth day a second deep-throat product has to be ejected and the vial sent via a friend to one of several locations (or pay the equivalent of US$ 12 to a collecting agency). A white band with a QR code and a concealed chip was tethered to KD’s wrist to monitor location, rather like a felon on bail. Don’t you dare stray away from the self-quarantine location or Big-Brother HKG-version will find out. He was given a pocket digital thermometer to keep a daily record, facemasks, a 36-page pamphlet of does and don’ts and more colourful sheets of guidelines and instructions.
All this done, clear immigration, move to the baggage-hall, claim one’s bounty and board a coach. Arrivals are taken to a government arranged and paid hotel for one night; nice, clean, small room with a spanking clean toilet and shower. Only then does the number hanging round the neck make sense; it’s the hotel room all super efficiently organised in advance. Collect a dinner-box (veg or non-veg) on the way up. But there’s a catch; the electronic door card is set to ‘No-time-only’ to prevent ants-in-the-pants chaps from walking out all over town and infecting the world. The room phone is dead, neither reception, nor operator nor housekeeping will answer. Some super isolation! What if one has a heart attack? Well KD didn’t; a good night’s sleep, snoring till 10.45 next morning. An 11 o’clock call on the hotel phone said the equivalent of “Buzz-off you have been cleared”. A breakfast-box, courtesy the government will be found hanging outside the door. The government does not pay for the taxi home; well never mind everything not Christmas.
There’s more to come – supra-high-tech is a malady in HKG. Once in his flat KD was phoned and told to activate the Stay Home Safe app on the smart-phone, turn on Bluetooth and Location Tracking and present the QR code (see photo) to the phone. The system promptly recognises it and returns a message about hygiene and the dire consequences of straying beyond the front door – a fine equivalent to US$ 3100. They now have a double check on your location; the signal on the smart-phone and the chip on the wristband. End of story? Not quite; you have forgotten the second sample. On the morning of the tenth day KD dutifully cleared his throat, spat into the vial, put into two Biohazard marked plastic zip bags with some documentation and deposited it outside his front door. The brave agents of the collection agency came for it to earn their $12. As you read this KD is on his eleventh day of self-quarantine all alone in his tiny flat and slowly working his way through a 28-bottle wine cooler and a liquor cabinet. Thankfully stocks are adequate till the end of incarceration.