Back in late March 2020, in one of the busiest cities in central Europe, an Uber driver tells me he saw a 90% of his daily business vanish in a few days.
I turn my neck around as the words COVID VIRUS 19, tattooed on the side of a bridge, flies past the window. We’ve all seen the post-apocalyptic cliché where our heroes drive past the insightful words THE END IS NIGH. I felt genuine chills.
Not often in human history have we been able to fly during a global pandemic. The MERS-CoV outbreak stayed mainly in the Asian hemisphere, commercial air travel was not widespread during the Spanish Flu, and rats didn’t do well in passport control during the Black Death.
And why should one attempt to travel at this unique time? Few things might motivate such a wacky act, among them incentives to provide life support to dipping airline stocks, a delight to bioterrorize or document deserted public places, or simply to hug one’s family and play soccer with one’s own dog.
Meanwhile, most people around the world are at home in quarantine and sourdough baking. Most are thinking very hard on how to continue life as normal and how, after all we’ve accomplished as a species in our global domination, could a nanoscale bug, a protein capsules and a bit of RNA, create such turbulence.
Surviving to the airport
The first thing the Uber driver said to me while I handed my suitcase was “Zwei metre, bitte”, reminding probably both of us to social distance. I sat right at the back. I was wearing my winter gloves and tried not to touch anything, especially my face.
The driver didn’t have any plexiglass, he wore no mask nor gloves. He sanitised his hands before starting the car, thanked me for choosing Uber instead of the public train and predicted most of us will be infected before the end.
At the terminal gate we wished each other to stay safe and healthy.
Avoiding crowded city trams and trains is a great idea in general during these times, but especially when heading to the airport. It will help you minimise swiping past masses of people before the flight, and overall simplifies your trip so you can ‘stay alert’ as the situation becomes even more surreal at the airport.
Washing your hands
The place was empty. Absolutely no one at the check-in, no one queuing, in frustration nor anticipation. No one at all. Only a few attendants had huddled over a desk, like teenagers discussing a social media blunder. They raised their heads and assumed smiling positions as I approached and handed my passport. The attendant didn’t wear gloves, didn’t flinch, didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary.
I asked whether she thought the flight would be cancelled. She assured no — the plane had already departed and was on its way. She handed back my passport and wished me a nice flight.
After checking in I wanted very badly to wash my hands and hopped to the nearest restroom. Not a soul in sight. With more attention than ever in my life, I washed my palms and fingers, my fingernails and my upper arms while repeating hypnotically:
Wash hands, don’t touch face.
Wash hands, don’t touch face.
Wash hands, don’t touch face.
You will feel a little calmer after every time you wash your hands during your travels, like after pressing ‘Save’ at a video game checkpoint. If there is one crucial action you still have power over, it’s how big of a viral load you intend to carry in your fingertips.
Next, I headed towards another surreal scene — the security check.
An overwhelming amount of security staff compared to passengers. Around 35-to-1 to be exact. I was confused which line was even open since they were all in stand still.
After crisscrossing the queue ropes and putting my bag on the nearest conveyer, the staff awoke to hastily put on their plastic gloves. She asked me three times whether I had lotions or liquids over 150ml in my backpack. Nope, I said while smiling a little. The guards watched as I took off my gloves, shoes and coat, unpacked my laptop, and pushed the tray in now without any gloves. Yikes. Wash hands, don’t touch face. Wash hands, don’t touch face.
While four staffers analysed my bag for illegalities, my only thought was that the one dangerous thing I could bring on board would never flag on the X-ray scan. Luckily for them, I was weapons free and there really wasn’t anyone to murder on Zürich international airport; the tax free was closed, bars were dark, Lindt was shut. Only Burger King seemed open, with one slightly pissed off staffer staring into non-existent business.
I took a seat at the lounge, opened my red notebook and wrote:
False security. No one recorded any fevers, offered disinfectant or even asked after flu-like symptoms. Policies may not yet be perfectly in place, but the lack of any health check is weird. In future, airports will have a government imposed guidebook for keeping their travellers safe against infectious diseases, but right now we are all winging it.
Gloves aren’t really necessary, but you definitely should wear a mask while traveling. If nothing else, it makes you more aware about habitually touching your nose and mouth and, more importantly, creates an emotional moat between you and the outside threat [two months later, none of us would have any business getting on a plane without wearing a mask].
Twenty-two metres of distance
Only four flights were listed on the blue screen for departing flights: Bangkok, Frankfurt, Hong Honk and Helsinki. The plane to Frankfurt would apparently depart 15 minutes early. Early. My flight’s gate, on the other hand, was to be displayed in one hour (guess I’m an early bird too).
While sitting there on the black leather seats, I realised that around every 20 minutes an announcement ran in German and in English:
“Due to the current situation, we ask you to keep two metres distance to each other.”
I looked around. Other than one couple in the waiting area sitting side by side, the closest person was an average 20 metres away.
How about outside? Just a row of calm SWISS planes beaming in the afternoon haze.
Despite a lack of crowds, do keep your social distance or otherwise avoid speaking to others face-to-face without wearing a mask. Like the previous, it slows the virus from spreading and can even provide much needed mental space to prepare you for the what’s next.
Trying to think
Now Boris Johnson has it.
You didn’t yet connect to any wifi and already itch to read the news, to know what is going on. In no other time in human history has a global pandemic been recorded, measured, analysed, pondered, predicted, modelled, reported, distorted, hidden, politicised and openly exploited. And somehow, no one knows the real numbers and hence more ambiguity to exploit. Are there now 5000, 20,000 or 100,000 cases in the area near you? Probably all of the above.
Somehow I feel like none of this is really happening. Like it’s all a dream and we’ll go back to work, back to a world of familiar rhythms that engrained in without our questioning. But maybe we can’t go back to that tune. Maybe the disappeared crowds, and agendas and air traffics created space for something else.
Maybe the boredom, loneliness, lack of material accumulation and consumerism are steps towards a better world? A world with less greed?
Embrace and savour any time away from the constant firehose of news and other coronavirus content. This is the best time to reflect on the thoughts and feelings you already experience during the situation, maybe even note some of them down for the grandkids. Your speculations are not good or bad, but worry itself won’t cure anyone or make things go back to normal. Evaluation, however, can make you feel philosophical and hopeful.
Viruses don’t really care about class
Finally the gate B34 flashed on the blue screen next to a green ‘BOARDING’ sign. I trotted towards the B-gates, passing wide corridors of roll down doors and closed last minute tax-free stands. The only other wonderers in these echoing glass and stone corridors were a few airport security guards.
I wondered if I would be the only flyer from Switzerland to Finland today. That would be something.
Alas, there were others waiting at the gate. First two, then five and finally nine. Nine passengers in total, nine in the fellowship, nine rings to rule them all.
We waited patiently until the previous passengers exited the flight, many more of them, almost all in turquoise surgical masks if my memory isn’t mistaken. We were casually invited to board by the same relaxed assistant from the baggage check. No special warm welcomes to first class passengers or premium members. Alongside much of their stocks, COVID-19 had flattened the air travel class hierarchy.
As no one else made a move, I stepped up and boarded.
A virus doesn’t really care if you get sick first or last. No matter where you’re from, who you are or what your profile status, the idea is to keep as many people from infection as possible. ‘Me first’ is not the name of the game, my friends. Do put on your safety mask first, but do it to protect the rest of us.
Welcoming us onboard was a Finnish steward wearing a blue surgical mask. She looked surprised, like she didn’t expect anyone to actually show. I walked down the aisle to my seat 22C. They told me I could put my hand luggage under any of the seats in front of me, since I was the only one sitting at the back. The rest eight passengers sat far away at the front.
The plane took off from a traffic free highway. The sun was setting and the ground transformed into a blank plane of endless clouds. I even took a time-lapse of the ascent, mostly for my own amusement:
They announced that the service on board had been reduced and handed out oat biscuits and small bottles of water. There were so few of us, they took the trouble to learn our names, a fact that made me laugh in slight shock.
Prepare your own food and snacks for your flight, as the airlines cannot secure high hygiene standards while serving meals and beverages. Keep your mask on through the entire flight, and for gods sake don’t use it as a sleep mask. You made it onto the plane. You’re gonna be ok and you’re gonna be home soon.
Before landing we were handed a COVID-19 instruction manual for passengers arriving to Finland.
After landing, they took us out the back door of the plane, into a shuttle bus. I tried to make eye contact with the others and smile, but people just looked out the windows while we curved to a pandemic appropriate entourage. There were nurses in blue surgical gowns and masks, carrying white sheets of paper to fill. It was like arriving to Ellis Island in 1910.
“Have you experienced any symptoms of cold, cough, flu or otherwise feel unwell?”
“Who is going to pick you up?”
“Do you promise to stay at home for the next 14 days?”
Now wait a minute. Where were these questions before we all boarded the plane?
Policemen had been placed onto two podiums, where they peered down at us like judges, assigned to carefully weigh whether we were clean and could be freed to the world. The policeman briefly glanced at my passport, heard that I was native and let me through without further questions. Casting one last look into the tense chaos, I could see some foreign nationals still filling out the white paperwork.
My final image of the trip was my father with his arms open waiting on the other side. He went in for a hug and was halted by at least 10 people yelling:
At home I would gave my dog the biggest hug ever.
Respect the quarantine rules and save your hugs for later. This is a time to think like an avian virus. SARS-CoV-2 is easily broken down by detergent, wash your hands again when you get home. Wash your clothes as well and wipe other surfaces you touched often. Keep away from visiting grandparents and leave your home only when necessary for the recommended amount of days. Especially say no to big social gatherings, crowded pubs and cafés.
If your government hasn’t enforced these rules, enforce them onto yourself for the sake of humanity and for everyone flying on airplanes, unsure how to correctly protect themselves or others, just hoping to see their families and keep them safe.