A lot can happen in a year as we all know and we’re certainly not out of the woods yet, but spring is waiting and with it the hope of better days ahead. It’s this ability to find optimism and positivity in even the direst of circumstances that helps to keep us human beings marching forward. However, there is much to be said for taking a scrutinising glance into the past and I’ve been thinking about that recently, and when it was that the reality of Covid 19 actually began to have an impact on me. In fact, I can pinpoint that exact date, because on Friday 13th of March last year, I flew home to Northern Ireland from Oman and this is what I wrote in my diary observations for the day:
Friday 13th March 2020
Arrived at Muscat airport in good time for my flight. Busy enough but not nearly as busy as is usual for an International Airport. I was anxious about travelling, mainly because I didn’t want to get stuck anywhere en route and I’m a nervous traveller at the best of times. My husband stayed with me until I reached the restricted area and because it would be six months before we would see each other again, it wasn’t easy. Our next conversation would be on skype.
A non-eventful, one-hour flight. Most of the passengers were wearing masks of various descriptions which was reassuring. Landed in Dubai in good time for my connecting flight. I was worried that there would be more delays at the airport with the anticipated extra health measures and security etc, but everything was straightforward. Only when I passed through the massive Duty Free section on my way to the next flight did things became rather eerie. Dubai airport, the hub of the Middle East, was practically deserted. There were very few travellers anywhere and all staff in all shops wore masks and gloves. It was certainly a strange feeling and quite disconcerting. More than anything, it made me aware that I shouldn’t be touching objects or anyone, unless I could immediately wash my hands. Thankfully I had my own little sanitiser bottle and relied on that when I couldn’t use soap and water.
The flight from Dubai to Dublin was only half full which meant that I had no one beside or behind me and could stretch out. It was a daytime flight but the window blinds came down pretty soon after take-off as people tried to get some sleep. I rarely sleep on planes so I watched two films and an hour of CNN live news which was broadcasting the World Health Organisation’s question and answer session with journalists. The discussions were very measured, yet very frank and seemed to be relaying responsible updates on the virus. I had already been following their press briefings and updates for several weeks on the TV in any case.
I was in a small, economy section of the plane. Nothing seemed untoward during the flight. No fuss or bother in my near vicinity and the plane eventually touched down, taxied in and stopped. Happy days, I thought, I can catch an earlier coach up north now. Then the pilot announced that all passengers should remain seated as there was an unwell passenger on board and he would be leaving the aircraft first.
Next, the cabin crew alarmingly donned masks and gloves and stood at their stations. I thought that whoever it was who was sick must be at the back of the plane behind me but several of the airport medical staff arrived and stopped at a gentleman just three rows ahead of me, took his bag from the overhead locker and assisted him, with great difficulty, out of his seat. The sweat was literally zinging off him and his whole body was shaking uncontrollably. He was very unbalanced and could barely stand as he stood up, but the staff very quickly helped him off the aircraft. Great, I thought, I’ve nearly managed to reach the green, green grass of home and now I’ll be in quarantine for the next ten days. But no – it was a complete shock to hear the pilot announcing that all passengers could disembark. I had felt sure that we’d at least be grounded for quite some time until the authorities decided how to deal with a possible covid case.
So, I went to the baggage claim and was relieved that my suitcase had arrived quite quickly considering it had come from Oman. I ran like the blazes to catch the coach and managed to get the express which would stop at Sprucefield. None of the people on my flight received any directives about isolation etc and we were only given a generic leaflet about the corona virus as we were leaving arrivals. I got on the coach and sat behind a young woman who was immediately on her phone to several people, including her mum and colleagues from work. She had come off a flight from Spain – only allowed to disembark 10 at a time and each person given a directive to self-isolate for 15 days once they got home and to try and avoid public transport going up north (to which she said, ‘What do you want me to do – walk to Belfast?’). This whole situation was extraordinary because I’d just come off a flight with a severely ill passenger but was given no directives at all.
By this stage I was worried that I would not be able to get a taxi from Sprucefield – were taxis even picking up passengers anymore? In the event, this wasn’t an issue, although I did silently wonder all the way home, why the taxi driver wasn’t wearing a mask. In any event, I made the decision, before I even arrived at the house, that I would self-quarantine for at least a week in case I had inadvertently picked up something on my travels. I half expected to get a call from Emirates updating me about the gentleman who was so sick, but nothing, even though I later wrote and asked them for an update.
On reading this back, my overriding feeling is one of disbelief that on arriving home, things were so unchanged and it is hard to take in the seemingly laissez-faire attitude of the UK government at the time. While in Oman I had been regularly following various International news channels for weeks, and as a lay person it was not hard to see that the corona virus was not going to confine itself to one particular part of the globe. Yet words of recrimination will not alter the many mistakes that have been made over the past year at the cost of so many lives, so it is perhaps more constructive to consider what has been learnt over time. That we did not act quickly enough must surely be one of the most valuable lessons of all. ‘Test, trace, isolate and restrict mobility as early as possible’ was the mantra for those countries that fared much better than we did and I’d like to think we’ve learned something there. Likewise, there needs to be a recognition that the pandemic is a global issue, where countries throughout the world need to work together more judiciously in order to benefit us all. Human beings are capable of inflicting so much damage upon each other, but they also have the capacity for great good, as science has proved by the incredible speed with which life-saving vaccines have been produced. If the end result of this terrible year is to make us more aware and appreciative of our positive endeavours, and the willingness to build on them, then perhaps there is some consolation in that.
Lynda Tavakoli lives near Hillsborough and was born in Portadown. She divides her time between Ireland and the Middle East where her Persian husband works. Her poetry and prose are widely published.