In this blog post, I would like to reflect on my experience of travelling in the COVID-19 crisis. I am a Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Health and Development, Queen Margaret University. My job involves travelling to different countries.

My colleague (Rebecca Horn) and I were meant to travel to Sierra Leone via Paris on 14th March for fieldwork. I was supposed to be there for over a month. I had never been to Sierra Leone before, and I was very excited about my upcoming trip.

However, we had to abort our travel in Paris and return to the UK because of the restrictions that the government of Sierra Leone introduced in light of COVID-19, a day before our departure (13th March). My travel to Paris and back home in the midst of the global COVID19 crisis was an experience that taught me some valuable lessons.

The virus is somewhere there … it is not here
When the coronavirus broke out in China in December 2019, it seemed to me so distant and unreal. It felt like it would never reach us. This was mostly because viruses that broke out before, like swine flu and SARS, never reached places where I have lived (Scotland and Kyrgyzstan). This made me almost confident that it would be same with the coronavirus.

COVID-19 became very real when I reached the airport in Edinburgh. All of a sudden, I realised that I personally might be at risk of catching the virus. I saw people at the airport wearing masks, goggles, rubber gloves, and plastic coats. They were also continually cleaning their hands with sanitisers. This would make anyone very anxious; I was not an exception. I was trying to stay away from people, especially those wearing this gear.

After checking in, I went to buy some food and saw hand sanitiser in the shop. It was being sold at a limit of only two per customer. Even though I already had two bottles of hand sanitiser myself, I decided to buy two more (just in case – after all I was going to be away for more than a month). When I boarded the plane, it was half empty. For the first time in many years, I had the whole row to myself, which again reminded me about the coronavirus. When I arrived in Paris, which already had multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19, I decided to wear my mask that my husband had given me five minutes before my departure to the airport. After half an hour, I realised that it was difficult to breathe in the mask. I watched a little video on the BBC website which explained that there was no point in wearing the mask if one did not have COVID-19 or was not looking after someone infected with the virus. As a result, I decided to take off my mask, but I cleaned my hands with the sanitiser frequently.

“We need to make a decision”…
In Paris, I was joined by Rebecca, who flew from Manchester. The first thing that she said was “We need to make a decision”. She explained that, on 13th of March, the government of Sierra Leone ordered that people travelling to Sierra Leone from countries with more than 50 cases of COVID-19 would be quarantined for 14 days, starting from 16th of March.

Even though we would arrive in Sierra Leone one day before this order would be effective, our concern was that if further measures were introduced, European airlines would stop flying there and we would be stranded in Sierra Leone. We had to decide if we should continue our trip. In the call with our Director, Alastair, we jointly decided to abort the trip to Sierra Leone and return to the UK.

As Rebecca wrote in her blog post, following our decision we got our luggage back and arranged flights back to the UK for the next evening. We had to stay overnight in Paris. Once we reached the hotel, we thought that all the turmoil was behind us. However, by order of the French government, by the next morning all restaurants and cafes were shut. Even seating areas and a reception desk in the hotel were sealed off by tape.

Safe again?! The virus is left behind
My flight to Edinburgh was full. I assumed that these were people trying to get home. I arrived home safe and sound, thinking that COVID-19 was left behind. In my mind, it was again somewhere else, but not in a small town like Musselburgh, where I live.

To my dismay, things unfolded differently. Within a week, not only we were advised to work from home, but schools were shut. Within ten days, we were in a complete lockdown.

Lessons learned
This experience taught me a few important lessons. We live in a tightly intertwined world. We should not ignore the problems of other countries. No matter how small or large the issue is or how far or close the country is to us, the problem can affect us all.

With travel and migration, our interconnectedness will grow only stronger, increasing risks of global pandemics such as COVID-19. We should put in a collective effort to strengthen our responses to them. Lastly, preventive measures are crucial. Taking the time to learn these measures and applying them is a lesson that I learned for myself.

Dr Kanykey Jailobaeva portrait

Written by Dr Kanykey Jailobaeva

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