February 2020, I was at the Dubai airport transiting. I was returning from India after visiting my aging parents. We were corralled like cattle down a corridor for a security check. Everyone was literally breathing into each other’s faces. A handful of people were wearing masks. A virus shutting down a city in China was headline news. But everyone seemed confident it was a crisis, taking place in a far off place, much like an earthquake or a violent storm.
Four weeks later the whole human world came to a grinding halt.
A year later it was time for me to make a trip back.
Having been vaccinated and hearing from friends who had made the journey, and infection rates reporting low in the region, it felt safe to travel. I had not heard of a single outbreak on an airplane since the pandemic began, which was encouraging. The air-filtration systems supposedly were doing the trick.
As I began to research Covid travel protocols and other restrictions, it seemed like a daunting and unpleasant undertaking. Only two airlines guaranteed arrival and departure of which one was the national airline, AirIndia. An airline I had vowed never to board after a prior miserable experience.
Only Indian citizens and non-citizens with OCI cards (Indian equivalent of a Greencard) were being allowed entry into the country.
A negative PCR Covid test 72 hours before boarding was a requisite. Rapid tests were not acceptable. Copies of one’s passport and negative test result had to be uploaded to a government website which generated a form that had to be printed and presented at the airport.
Out of abundant caution I got my Covid test done early, so I would have my results in time to follow through with the procedures.
We arrived at JFK all prepared and confident, with paperwork neatly arranged in a folder for prompt retrieval. Terminal 4, which handles most international travel was practically empty, except for a long winding line of every shade of brown.
After an hour of inching along, we arrived at a checkpoint. A man in a suit and a badge asked me to show my Covid test report. I pulled out my folder with confidence and handed him a paper, which said in bold letters “Negative”. He said, “Sorry you cannot board. Your Covid sample was collected 80 hours ago. The rule says 72 hours.”
And so began an arduous and exasperating journey to the motherland.
Our vaccination cards did not offer any relaxation to the rule. A small minority of passengers was in the same predicament as we were in. I was told if I had arrived early enough I could have taken a shuttle to Terminal 1, got a rapid PCR test for $370 and would have been allowed to board. I was beside myself.
The plane ascended without us. AirIndia’s agents did their job as mandated by the Indian government. There was no room for discretion. I thought to myself, if only Indian bureaucrats and law enforcement were so honest and diligent as these AirIndia agents, the nation would be far more orderly than it is.
The only option left was to take the pricey rapid PCR test at Terminal 1, and catch the next AirIndia flight out of Newark Airport. So that’s what we did paying a high price.
The barebones service one is accustomed to on AirIndia was even more stripped down. The flight attendants, in literal Hazmat suits seemed on edge and not very courteous. Passengers sitting in middle seats were asked to wear white lab coats and plastic face shields, for reasons I could not comprehend.
I put on the white synthetic coat, but refused to put on the face shield. There were some passengers who were paranoid enough to comply and some didn’t. A 14 hour flight with a mask was about the discomfort I was willing to tolerate.
There was no beverage service. There were two meal breaks. Airline food which is most often an excuse for a meal, was even more watered down with two options, veg or non-veg with water, soda or wine. We were allowed to unmask for nourishment.
As the plane made its final descent into New Delhi, it felt like a “mission accomplished.” After three days, the sight of Indian soil from my window brought much needed relief.
As we exited the plane, there were men in uniform flanking the corridor. We were asked to show our boarding passes again and again, for reasons I still cannot fathom. A police officer rubber-stamped it. Passengers were guided to bins to discard the white coats and plastic shields. The plane littered with plastic water bottles now had face shields added, waiting to be added to a landfill somewhere on our ever-expanding plastic planet.
The Delhi airport was a ghost town. An army of airport employees was lounging with nothing to do, probably that’s why they were asked to repeatedly check boarding passes of exiting passengers. The floor salesmen at the Duty Free were advertising enticing discounts on perfumes and whiskey. The food court was sparse.
After a day’s layover at Delhi we arrived in Hyderabad. An hour and a half was spent filling out forms in triplicate and showing negative Covid reports again, and at the final window a man rubber stamped my hand, “Home Quarantine” and sent me along into the city of my birth.
As our taxi climbed the highway, from my window I noticed a wedding taking place at an opulent venue in the distance. The palatial structure was dressed in bright lights and fancy cars were dropping off guests in their flashy finery. A large crowd was partying with very little social distancing or masks. And here I was being asked to home quarantine after vaccinations and negative Covid tests. I had arrived in India.
Hyderabad seemed open for business. Restaurants and tea stalls were crowded, traffic was at its maximum and people were going about their life as though things were back to normal. A few people wore masks, and news continued to report of sporadic outbreaks around the country.
India’s astonishing low death rate was international news, with very little evidence to explain why. So theories were being floated that maybe the population is resilient having been exposed to countless viruses and vaccinations, the Indian demographic is largely young and probably inaccurate data was being collected as many Covid deaths were not being reported.
These were theories, but a clear sense of complacency and fatigue had definitely set in.
For a nation as dense and economically and socially diverse, physical distancing is a luxury afforded only to the rich. There is also a sense of fatalism that most Indians carry, prompting many to not be paranoid about yet another disease added to a long list of endemic viral killers.
I was concerned for my parents as they were in the high risk category by age. My 89 year old father was doing all he could to stay distanced. My mother on the other hand was far less concerned. Some of my relatives were extremely paranoid.
As I arrived, India was also beginning to roll out an impressive nation wide vaccine campaign. The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine producer, with the help of the Gates Foundation had scaled up its capacity and was not only meeting India’s demand but was also exporting world wide. India is only a handful of nations manufacturing and exporting vaccines. At the same time there was widespread vaccine hesitancy fueled by rumors and misinformation spread on social media.
While developed nations like Canada and the EU are struggling to get vaccinations to their people, India is ahead of the curve. Within a day, I was able to get my mother vaccinated by filling out a quick form on the Internet. As soon as she was jabbed, a personalized PDF landed in her phone from Prime Minister Modi, thanking her for being a participant in the fight against Covid.
A day before I was to leave, I took my PCR Covid test. Unlike New York my result was delivered within 24 hours.
As I was leaving headlines were reporting about an alarming rise in cases around the country. A new mutated Covid variant was being blamed. Some experts were saying a second wave maybe sweeping the country. Mumbai was coming close to a lock down and the general trend seemed worrisome. The Serum Institute was asked to stop exports in order to make more vaccines available to Indians.
Meanwhile large election rallies were being held and Tweeted about by the Prime Minister and other politicians around the country, exposing the utter hypocrisy in how the pandemic was being confronted.
I touched down at JFK, collected my bags, filled out a single form stating I was tested before boarding and was home, with only the Brooklyn traffic irking my tired body along the way.
I fear this way of traveling is going to become the norm for sometime to come. It is going to take years to vaccinate the planet and until then there will be peaks and troughs and Covid will become endemic. There will be those who will not take the vaccine, putting forth the usual baseless selfish arguments and vaccine passports and tests will become a requisite for travel.
After 9/11 we got accustomed to an invasive and uneasy security regimen. Going forward an additional layer of probing will be added to make everyone feel “safe”. A new reality has certainly dawned on us.