Smiling Behind Our Masks: Travelling in a Pandemic

Featured Illustration: Robert Beatty

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“We are smiling behind our masks,” says the announcement on the Turkish Airlines flight as I buckle myself in. It was only when it clicked into place that I believed I was finally on my way. The week leading up to this had been fraught with last-minute changes to flights, accommodations, and even destinations, as I had to adjust to the UK’s traffic light system.

As a citizen of a country on the red list, I could enter the UK only if I went straight into a ten-day government hotel quarantine. I had only heard negative stories about the inhumane way travellers were being treated in near prison-like conditions. Security guards were posted on each floor, your meals were deposited outside the room door and your movements — including a 15-minute walk around a car park — were closely monitored. A friend who had braved the quarantine commented that if you didn’t have COVID when you left home you would most likely get it while being herded onto the bus with other red-listers from all over the world. Travellers are not given a choice as to which hotel they would like to stay in, which, at £2-2500 and an exchange rate of £1 to ZAR20, is rather an affront and sounds a lot like profiting from a pandemic. There are also fines for not having a valid test result.

It was quite an anxious and claustrophobic experience wearing a mask for most of the eleven-hour flight to Croatia (currently on the green list) — my spectacles misted up and my hearing was definitely impaired by not being able to see behind masks. Those little toiletries bags that they dish out on the plane now include disposable masks and a small bottle of sanitiser. But I had also come prepared with sanitising wet wipes and extra masks. Landing at Dubrovnik airport was like arriving in a parallel universe — people were not wearing masks outside and the number of tourists was overwhelming after leading a semi-hermetic life in the last year and a half. However, masks are generally worn indoors and there are ample sanitising stations, even on the public transport where mask-wearing is enforced. At the hotel, I found that the safety measures included the rooms being sanitised and sealed between guests, and the breakfast “buffet” was served from behind transparent screens by staff wearing masks and gloves.

While I may have thought Dubrovnik was overwhelming, London is positively fear-inducing. In a seemingly post-COVID country, normal life spills out onto the pavements and into the streets. Most shops have sanitiser and signs about face-coverings but these do not seem to be enforced in any way. Taking the tube was traumatic as it was packed (5.5 million commuters used the tube in London on one day this past week) and in spite of announcements about masks being compulsory, many commuters were not wearing them or wearing them incorrectly. I fear that, having evaded the virus for the last year and a half, I might just catch it here.

The main reason for braving the big wide scary pandemic world was to see family. Since there is talk of a possible “fourth wave” coming in early December in South Africa, I thought I would take the window while it was still reasonably possible to do so. I had left home fully vaccinated (with the Pfizer vaccine) and by my second day in the UK, my final destination, I had had four PCR tests, all negative.

On both the flights to Croatia and the UK, I had to fill in a Passenger Locator Form, including my vaccination status. I was baffled to see that, unless I had been vaccinated in the UK, EU, or the US, my vaccination was not recognised. So at the top of my form, it reads Vaccine Status: No/Not Declared? Vaccines given across Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have been completely discounted as if we had been given inferior versions of the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, or any one of the other recognised vaccines. It makes no sense at all — South African scientists had been involved in clinical trials with universities in the UK. In the past, our vaccinations for tuberculosis, yellow fever, and typhoid have been widely accepted. What has changed now? It seems to be either downright discriminatory or politically motivated; or perhaps an example of neo-colonialism?

From the 4th of October, the UK will be dispensing with their traffic light system and there will only be red (no-go) and green (okay to travel). New variants are appearing as fast as vaccines are being produced. Meanwhile, we have to watch while countries in the UK, North America, and Europe are offering their citizens booster shots because they have a surplus of vaccines.

The pandemic is not going to go away and, after a year and a half, rich countries are continuing to exclude poorer ones rather than committing to assisting them with vaccinating their populations. I remember in the early days of this pandemic being very optimistic about how the world was being given an opportunity to reflect and reset but it seems that COVID has brought out both the best and the worst of us. Would it be too much to hope that those richer countries assist poorer ones and help to shorten the pandemic so that we can all move beyond a world where we will continue to have to smile behind our masks and find new reasons to close borders?

The 54 hotel quarantine red list countries are dominated by countries from Africa, South Asia, and Latin America:

  • South Africa
  • DR Congo
  • Tanzania
  • Zimbabwe
  • Botswana
  • Eswatini
  • Zambia
  • Malawi
  • Namibia
  • Lesotho
  • Mozambique
  • Angola
  • Rwanda
  • Burundi
  • Somalia
  • Ethiopia
  • Seychelles
  • Panama
  • Cape Verde
  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Bolivia
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • French Guiana
  • Guyana
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Suriname
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela
  • The Philippines
  • Nepal
  • Afghanistan
  • Costa Rica
  • Sudan
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Mexico
  • Uganda
  • Tunisia
  • Eritrea
  • Haiti
  • Dominican Republic
  • Mongolia
  • Cuba
  • Indonesia
  • Myanmar
  • Sierra Leone
  • Georgia
  • Réunion
  • Mayotte
  • Thailand
  • Montenegro