Passengers wait at a coronavirus testing centre in Hong Kong after arriving on a flight from overseas. Photograph: Laurel Chor/Bloomberg via Getty Images
When I booked my flight home after spending more than two-and-a-half months in Europe, I knew what my journey would entail. With no more direct flights between Paris and Hong Kong, I would have a brief layover in London. I knew that when I landed at the Hong Kong airport, I would be tested and held at a facility for roughly eight hours until my results came back.
In the best case scenario – if I were negative – I would be spending two weeks in home quarantine, my whereabouts tracked by an app and a chunky device worn on my wrist. If I were positive, I would be sent to the hospital.
I’m used to traveling alone, but I wasn’t expecting the feeling of isolation as I moved from one dystopian scene to another. Flying long haul has never been stranger.
Heathrow, like Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, was eerily quiet. I was alone when I went through security. All of the shops and restaurants were closed, there was no music or boarding announcements, and none of the usual din of tens of thousands of passengers making their way to their gates. Looking at the handful of flights listed on the announcement board, I realised that I could safely assume that any other passenger I encountered in the terminal was on my flight.
Once we had all boarded, the captain remarked over the PA system that there were only about 100 passengers and that we would all be entering a quarantine of some sort when we landed. He didn’t expect any delays; the skies were empty.
Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) assist arriving passengers to board a bus to a coronavirus testing facility in Hong Kong. Photograph: Laurel Chor/Bloomberg via Getty Images
When you fly from one international hub to another in normal life, you never know where your fellow passengers are coming from, where they’re going, or what they’ll be doing when they land. But this time – with Hong Kong allowing only residents in – I knew that we had all chosen to return, for one reason or another, and to accept what came next.
Hong Kong, despite tens of millions crossing its border with mainland China every year, has only had 1,052 cases of Covid-19 and four related deaths in a city of 7.4 million. Until Wednesday, when a 66-year-old woman with no recent travel history was confirmed to be infected, every single new case that Hong Kong had recorded in the previous 23 days had been imported from abroad – meaning none of the patients had caught the virus within the city itself.
The British Airways staff member who greeted us on the plane and directed us to our seats wore a mask and gloves, but for the remainder of the journey, the rest of the crew did not. In absurd contrast, some of the passengers wore full-body protective suits, plastic face shields, goggles and gloves. Every single one wore a face mask. The passengers were calm, with none of the usual stressed urgency of air travel: no one was in a hurry to get anywhere.
Inside the confines of the plane, it was as if passengers and cabin crew functioned in parallel universes: flight attendants served food and drink as normal – an act impossible to perform without being at least within an arm’s reach – to people wearing levels of protection normally reserved for highly dangerous environments.
Arriving in Hong Kong
When we landed in Hong Kong 12 hours later, people were patient and cooperative, though they politely kept their distance from each other. We were all being treated as we were potentially infected. There was the sense that we all knew that we were traveling under extraordinary circumstances and everyone was doing their best to do their part.
We were herded through station after station, each with its own discrete purpose. At one, we got health forms and orders. Before we could advance, we had to download a tracking app. At another, someone recorded our phone numbers and checked that they worked. Someone gave us our tracking bracelets, and someone else activated them. A health official signed and stamped my quarantine order and gave me a thermometer, explaining I was to record my temperature twice a day. He told me not to worry, and assured me that assuming I were negative, I would be eating dim sum on the morning of the 28th.
Laurel Chor in the testing centre in Hong Kong Photograph: Laurel Chor
I went through immigration, picked up my luggage and cleared customs. But I wasn’t heading home. We were herded onto a bus that took us to a convention centre nearbythat had been converted into a testing facility. We stood in line – separated by at least a metre from one another – and a health worker gave us testing kits as well as tag numbers to wear around our necks. She patiently explained how to perform the test on myself. Afterwards, we had to watch an instructional video in a giant hall, where the video played on repeat on three large screens in front of dozens of equally spaced chairs.
In the next hall, I was assigned a testing booth, where I could hock up saliva from deep in my throat – the government video instructed us to make a “kruuua” sound – and spit into a tube in semi-privacy. I handed it in and was taken to a hall where I was given my own table and chair, with a welcome note, “house rules” and a rubbish bag. Later, a food cart brought sandwiches and water bottles. As the hours passed, the food cart came by again with chocolate digestives and crackers.
Seven hours later, they finally announced that passengers from my flight would be released. Our tag numbers were called. I went up to the counter and was told my test came back negative. I was given a second test kit, which I am to perform on myself again in 12 days. I was free to go home, where I have to stay for the next two weeks.
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