Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
Travelling under the spectre of the novel Coronavirus
– not visited March 2020 –
In short: I could not visit the Solomon Islands. Upon arrival, I was denied entry, brought to a quarantine house under the supervision of the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health, brought back to the airport the next day and put on a flight to Fiji (for which I never bought a ticket). I have an exit stamp in my passport but no entry stamp.
I conceived the trip that would bring me to the Solomons in December 2019 / January 2020 as a way to visit all countries (except Bhutan) east of the Arabian Peninsula that I had never visited before. I would start in recently opened Saudi-Arabia and move on to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Tonga. As direct flights between these countries are in most cases non-existent, I would make short stops of a few days in the United Arab Emirates, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. Longer stops were planned in Fiji and finally New Zealand as my previous visits there had been too short to do these countries justice.
In early January, reports surfaced of a new respiratory disease originating in the Chinese province of Hubei. Eight Chinese doctors, who had publicly sounded the alarm on December the 30th, had been arrested on charges of spreading false rumours. On the 7th of January, the virus was isolated and on the 12th its genome was shared with researchers around the world. Still, when I booked the first flight to Saudi-Arabia on the 17th of January, I knew next to nothing about the new form of coronavirus and it seemed like something far away. On the 20th of January, China reported 140 new cases in just one day. By the 22nd I had booked most flights until I would reach Fiji. On the 23rd of January, the day I left home, the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan (pop. 11 million) was put under a total lockdown. In 2003, I had arranged for a cruise on the Yangtze river in Wuhan.
Still, the new virus, which does not even have a proper name yet, seems far away. On the 29th of January 2020 the health committee of the German parliament talks about Corona as the fifth and last topic of the day. It does not remain that distant for long. On the last day of January my flight (China Eastern Airlines) from Malé, the capital city of the Maldives to Colombo (Sri Lanka) is cancelled. On the 2nd of February, I learn from a Filipino friend that I will have to adjust my travel plan. The Filipino government has just announced a ban on all travellers that had been to mainland China, Hong Kong or Macao in the preceding 14 days before arriving to the Philippines. I am forced to choose between Hong Kong (which has a handful of cases) and the Philippines, I cannot visit both. I have a deep appreciation of Hong Kong (keep fighting for your rights!) which was the only stop on my itinerary that was not strictly necessary but the Philippines are a near essential stepping stone on my way from Palau to the Solomon Islands. With a heavy heart, I cancel the flights to and from Hong Kong.
My travel plan is not made for the time of a possible pandemic. Between Saudi-Arabia and the Solomon Islands I will visit eight countries in a time-span of 34 days, meaning I will arrive in a new country on average every 4.25 days. Furthermore, Hong Kong (which I already cancelled) and Taiwan are both places close to China that had early cases. It is not even three weeks that I booked my first flight but given these circumstances I would, at this point of time, not embark on this trip anymore. But given that I have all the flights (until Fiji, not making any more bookings until things have cleared up) I just hope for the best. I reckon if I make it to the Solomon Islands things will get easier, my itinerary will be less compressed and I will be further away from the virus-stricken areas.
In Sharjah in the UAE I buy a face mask. The Indian pharmacists explains the different types to me, I leave with a N95 mask, save for viruses.
As I reach India on the 5th of February I have to fill out a Health Reporting form leaving my contact details and answer if I have fever, coughing or difficulty breathing. If I had arrived from Thailand or South Korea, I would need to go to a special counter. The Times of India features an article about a Chinese traveller going to the police after being refused entry by several hotels. Although he had left China in December and been in India for 14 days, he was put in the isolation ward of the local hospital for observation “as he could not furnish any health documents clearing him”.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 8th of February 2020: China 34,568 (722); Japan 89 (0); Singapore 33 (0); Thailand 32 (0); Hong Kong 26 (1); South Korea 24 (0); Taiwan 17 (0); Australia 15 (0); Malaysia 15 (0); Germany 14 (0).
TOTAL: 34,833; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 265
DEATHS: 723; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 9
Another health declaration card has to be filled out for the Maldives: Contact details, possible symptoms, travel history. Despite having strong ties with the Peoples Republic of China, all travel from there has been stopped (that is why my flight to Colombo was cancelled). Still, the arrivals hall at Malé airport is overflowing with people, everybody is pushing towards the immigration counters, it is hot and people are sweaty, I am surrounded by a big group of Italian tourists. As I finally reach the counter, I am greeted by a smile as beautiful as smiles can be. “Sundays are always crazy, if you can, arrive on another day”, a short glance at my passport and I am stamped in.
Instead of as originally booked with China Eastern Airlines, I am flying on to Sri Lanka with Korean Air. It is the 16th of February and South Korea has 30 confirmed cases. This number will explode in the coming days. The Korean Air stewardesses are all wearing face masks and gloves and I “suspect” them of observing the passengers for signs of illness. I am about the last person to leave the aircraft and several seats are marked with yellow post-its indicating something.
One more health declaration form at arrival in Sri Lanka. In the Sri Lankan highlands, the train is the preferred mode of tourist transport. The landscape is marvellous. There are only a few trains each day and the number of seats that can be reserved is way lower than demand. About half the passengers are tourists. People share seats meant for two people with three, all the gangways are full, the doors of the carriages are open and if you want to get in at stations along the way you have to search for the least crowded door and just push in. there is no other way to get on the train where you will be like sardines in their can. If most travellers would experience a train like this in their home countries, they would call it unbearable but here, with the flavour of the exotic, it is usually considered as a “great experience”. During my last day in Sri Lanka (22 February), I stumble upon a newspaper report about an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The German government had evacuated 126 citizens from the epicentre of the epidemic Wuhan on the 1st of February. Out of this group, several had shown symptoms commonly associated with the new virus but none of these persons tested positive. German authorities had proceeded though to offer every one of the evacuees a test and they found two people in the group who did not show any symptoms but tested positive for the virus and could potentially infect others. During the full 14 day period of quarantine these two persons never developed symptoms but their immune systems started to fight the virus and ultimately removed it from their bodies. Reading the article, l immediately knew that the game was up. If asymptomatic people can infect others with the virus, the measures currently in place around the world would not be able to stop the spread. Around this time, South Korea, Italy and Iran all start to report strongly rising numbers of sick people.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 22th of February 2020: China 76,298 (2,348); Diamond Princess 634 (2); South Korea 346 (2); Japan 105 (1); Singapore 86 (0); Hong Kong 68 (2); Thailand 35 (0); USA 35 (0); Taiwan 26 (1); Malaysia 22 (0); Australia 21 (0); Iran 18 (4); Germany 16 (0); Vietnam 16 (0); FRance 12 (1); UAE 11 (0); Italy 9 (0); UK 9 (0); Canada 8 (0); Philippines 3 (1); India 3 (0); Russia 2 (0); Spain 2 (0); Cambodia 1 (0); Nepal 1 (0); Sri Lanka 1 (0); Belgium 1 (0); Finland 1 (0); Israel 1 (0); Sweden 1 (0); Egypt 1 (0); Lebanon 1 (0)
TOTAL: 77,254; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 1,496
DEATHS: 2,361; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 31
On one hand, I fully grasp the consequences of asymptomatic people transmitting the disease but on the other hand, I am not willing, as policy makers all around the world, to draw the consequences. If asymptomatic people can spread the disease, it is imaginable that I could spread the disease. Wouldn’t it be better to stop travelling? But isn’t this a far-fetched thought? How low is the probability that I have come into contact with the virus? Where does personal responsibility begin and where does I end?
Waiting for my flight to Bangkok, I see that my original flight to Hong Kong had been cancelled. I have only one hour to change planes at Bangkok and I am received straight coming out of the plane by an airport employee who whisks me through the airport with quick steps. Flying on to Taipei, I have to visit a special desk, my temperature (36.4°C) is taken, my boarding pass gets another stamp and I am ready to go. Taiwan’s health declaration form is unprofessional. there is no compulsory field to enter your seat number and no field for a phone number. Everybody is stopped though by a crew of health workers in protective gear taking temperatures again (36.5°C) and demanding the addition of a phone number.
At the hostel at Sun Moon Lake I meet a guy from Hong Kong. He is working on his laptop most of the time. He came to Taiwan because in Hong Kong you are supposed to stay home, he has to work remotely anyway and enjoys the freedoms Taiwan is offering him.
Taoyuan Airport feels eerie. Everything is empty, few people are around, no waiting at check-in, no waiting at the security check, ten minutes after arrival you are basically at the gate, convenient. Airlines have started to become the first line of defence. Questions if you have been to China, Hong Kong, Macao (South Korea, Iran or Italy) in the last 14 days are becoming routine at check-in. Waiting at the gate for the flight from Taipei to Koror (Palau) an airline employee walks the aisles having everybody sign a form stating that we did not have a cough, a fever or shortness of breath in the last 14 days. If we hide our “sickness” we would have to compensate China Airlines (Taiwan’s national carrier) for all damages occurring because of that. The plane is late, and while we wait one of the stewardesses is walking towards the toilets. She moves her hand over her mouth, two short coughs and she keeps on walking. Did she sign the paper?
On arrival in Palau we are handed a small card: “Health Alert: Travelers from Wuhan, China” is how it originally read but “Wuhan” has been removed with tip-ex. You have to adapt to changing circumstances. The paper lists a phone number to call in case you should feel sick. On the way to the hotel, I get to talk to a traveller from Taiwan. He came to Palau for diving and he came now “because the Chinese are banned” giving him the chance to explore the islands without his pesky mainland brethren.
I am glad I did not choose to travel to Palau via South Korea which is by now the country with the second most infections in the world.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 29th of February 2020: China 79,261 (2,838); South Korea 3150 (17); Italy 888 (21); Diamond Princess 705 (6); Iran 388 (34); Japan 230 (5); Singapore 98 (0); Hong Kong 94 (2); USA 62 (0); Germany 57 (0); France 57 (2); Kuwait 45 (0); Thailand 42 (0); Taiwan 39 (1); Bahrain 38 (0); Spain 32 (0); Malaysia 24 (1); Australia 24 (0); UK 20 (0); UAE 19 (1); Vietnam 16 (0); Canada 14 (0); Sweden 12 (0); Switzerland 10 (0); Iraq 8 (0); Oman 6 (0); Norway 6 (0); Croatia 5 (0); Israel 5 (0); Philippines 3 (1); India 3 (0); Romania 3 (0); Greece 3 (0); Russia 2 (0); Denmark 2 (0); Georgia 2 (0); Netherlands 2 (0); Finland 2 (0); Lebanon 2 (0); Pakistan 2 (0); Mexico 2 (0); Cambodia 1 (0); Nepal 1 (0); Sri Lanka 1 (0); Belgium 1 (0); Egypt 1 (0); New Zealand 1 (0); San Marino 1 (0); North Macedonia 1 (0); Estonia 1 (0); Lithuania 1 (0); Belarus 1 (0); Afghanistan 1 (0); Brazil 1 (0); Algeria 1 (0); Nigeria 1 (0)
TOTAL: 85,388; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 6,127
DEATHS: 2,928′; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 55
Returning to Taiwan after only five days I kind of find a different country. Awareness and precautions have gone up strongly. The immigration officer scrutinizes my passport and stumbles upon my stamp from Saudi-Arabia. Except for a small “KSA” (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) it is all in Arabic and she wants to make sure the stamp is not from Iran. Taiwan CDC officials have set up a line of desks at the airport where they collect the health forms (“Be sure to wear a mask in public places”), at the hotel the elevator buttons are protected with a sheet of plastic and my temperature is taken at check-in. I have also stepped up my personal precautions, I am no longer staying in dorms if I can afford not to. And I often can as tourist numbers are low. At the Taipei 101 mall a signboard informs people that they will not be allowed to access the building if their temperature is above 37.5 °C, an infrared-camera gives an employee the power to stop you. Having passed the camera, hand sanitizer is waiting. Inside, you are informed how the cleaning-regime of often-touched surfaces has been stepped up. The same at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Palace Museum. You don’t even have to take the hand sanitizer yourself as an employee is spraying it right on your palms. The metro system also informs about the enhanced cleaning of the trains, posters from before Corona remind people to wear a mask if feeling sick and at one station even my temperature is taken. Nearly all shops offer hand sanitizer at the entrance.
As I meet my friend Collin for breakfast, a girl arrives at the table next to us. She puts her bag on the floor, takes out a disinfectant spray and starts to clean one of the chairs with the disinfectant and some wipes. She takes up her bag, sprays the bottom of the bag and puts it on the cleaned chair. She starts cleaning another chair. We are the only other people in the café and the smell of disinfectant wafts over to our table. In the last step she cleans the table but then decides that she wants to sit somewhere else. She starts cleaning another table but then moves the clean chairs over to spare herself the work to clean two more chairs. All in all, she has spent about 7 minutes to clean her surroundings. Before she sits down, she removes her gloves.
My next destination is Manila. I want to check which terminal my flight is leaving from (proper planning will allow me to leave for the airport a bit later) but to my surprise do not even find the flight. I contact my booking agent but am reassured that the flight will take place. I check more thoroughly and find the airport website showing my flight as cancelled. I contact my booking agent again. They make me wait as they want to check the situation and I am told that after contact with the airline the flight will definitely take place. I do not believe a word but leave for the airport. Of course, the flight is cancelled, it has been cancelled three weeks ago but no one ever bothered to tell me. I contact my booking agent (again!), they tell me I will need to call the airline to send them a confirmation that the flight was really cancelled. I contact the airline and send an angry e-mail to my booking agent (OPODO) to finally sort the shit out by themselves.
Thankfully, Taipei – Manila is a frequent route and there are two more flights going that night (even slightly cheaper) but less convenient as they fly during the night and not in late evening. Another night without much sleep, not good for my immune system. Early arrivals can mean early starts, Manila’s traffic starts to tighten up at 5:30 AM in the morning already. As I reach the island of Mindoro, I have to fill out an embarkation card with health questions and give details of my travel history.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 7th of MARCH 2020: China 80,768 (3,072); South Korea 6,767 (44); Iran 4,747 (124); Italy 4,636 (197); Diamond Princess 696 (6); Germany 639 (0); France 613 (9); Japan 408 (6); … Philippines 5 (1) …
TOTAL: 101,927; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 21,159
DEATHS: 3,483; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 92
Back in Manila, the taxi driver muses that you cannot lock down a city like this. “See all the people, how can you do that? They have to go out.” It is the 9th of March 2020 and exactly seven days later he will learn that you can indeed lock down a city like this. In fact, the whole island of Luzon (population 53 million) was locked-down. If I had stayed just a few days longer, I would have become trapped in the Philippines.
Inside the airport, the two girls and one guy behind the counter are like Filipinos often are: numerous, friendly, funny and not totally focused on the task ahead. “In the last 14 days, have you been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Italy, Singapore, Germany, France, Thailand, …” They pause, they can’t remember the full list of countries they are supposed to ask. I cut them off with a “no”. They smile, I tell them not to include Germany in the list, they are debating which country they missed. On of them mentions Taipei but this is a city, not a country, and they never ask me if I have been there. And I don’t want them to ask because I do not want to answer “yes” to this kind of question. Next morning, on touchdown in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea), I look at the Health Declaration Form for PNG (as Papua New Guinea is know to its friends) and find the following question. “Have you lived, travelled to or visited China (including Hongkong, Macau and Taiwan) …” I circle “Yes”. Thankfully, transit passengers are not required to give the form to anyone but are whisked through to the departure area. I like being back in PNG. On one hand it is one of the most dangerous countries on earth that sends a chill down many a traveller’s spine (including mine), but the people might well be the friendliest I have ever encountered. A few hours later, my plane leaves for the Solomon Islands.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 10th of MARCH 2020: China 80,879 (3,139); Italy 9,172 (463); South Korea 7,513 (54); Iran 7,161 (237); France 1,402 (30); Germany 1,139 (2); Spain 1,024 (28); Diamond Princess 696 (6); Japan 514 (9); USA 472 (19); … Philippines 33 (1) … PNG 0; Solomon Islands 0
TOTAL: 113,702; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 32,823
DEATHS: 4,012; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 104
Arriving in the Solomon Islands
The verdict is swift. My arrival form shows that I have been to the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand (change of planes) and Sri Lanka in the preceding 21 days. Every single one of these countries would disqualify me from entering the Solomon Islands. I could stay in quarantine though for 14 days but that makes no sense as I am supposed to move on to Fiji in a week. I can totally understand the Solomon Islanders, it is a poor place, my travel planning showed me again what kind of inadequate infrastructure the country has and if they get struck by the virus, they are in trouble. Income from tourism is negligible so why take a risk? Add to that my knowledge that even asymptomatic people can carry the virus and I really do not want to become the person bringing the virus to the Solomons. A few travellers have met the same fate than me in the last days. Most take it easy, says the lady from immigration but some would yell at them. The plane I came with is moving on to Vanuatu so we strike a deal that I stay one night in quarantine and tomorrow I will move on to Fiji. I tell them that this was my original plan (just a week later) and that I have very limited options of moving on or getting home from PNG. I give some guy 20$ (the only note I have handy) to buy me a SIM card. Quarantine is bad, but quarantine without internet is worse. I pay way too much for that but who cares. They explain the procedure. I never go through immigration but I still have to pass the biosecurity check. The wooden box I bought in the Philippines is examined, disinfected and declared safe, it does not pose a threat to the local environment.
Quarantine house is close to the airport. As our jeep arrives, the security guard opens the gate. The house has plenty of spacious rooms, each with a bathroom and a small kitchen. The room I am shown is unprepared, there are no bedsheets on the bed but new ones (still wrapped in plastic) are lying next to it. The guy showing me around points to some food boxes in plastic bags and gives me about 10 surgical masks. “Put them on if you go to the courtyard.” There are a few Malaysians on the grounds who have been here about 10 days. I am in quarantine so I am not supposed to mingle with others so I never get to ask what brought them to the Solomon Islands.
My room is generally untidy so I clean it up a bit (washing the leftover dishes). As I explore the foodboxes, half of them are empty and the other food is rotten so I dispose of it immediately. I make an easy day, lie on the bed, sleep a bit and read. It is raining anyway. I was told I would not need to buy a ticket for tomorrows flight, so I don’t. As I get seriously hungry (missed out on lunch today) I go outside and grab some bananas from the table. In the evening, they bring me some food and take my temperature (36.4°C). All easy. (Later studies will show that many infections do not cause a fever.)
The plane to Fiji leaves at 1 P.M. but they collect me earlier than expected and suggest that we are already in a hurry. At the airport, they want to put me on the plane back to Port Moresby. Wait a minute, this was not the deal we had, I was supposed to go to Fiji. They search their boss. I am in no hurry, there is a plane on the tarmac that I do not want to get into and the moment that plane leaves my negotiation position improves dramatically. The boss comes over, he says it’s all good, you can go to Fiji. Just wait and go to the check-in when it opens. I do as told but as I expected my name is not on the flight list. The lady needs to speak with her boss. He calls me over and tells me that they could take me back to PNG but that they cannot take me to Fiji. I would need to buy a ticket for that flight.
Well, I could, but I honestly don’t want. I tell him that immigration says the airline made a mistake in bringing me here and that they have to correct it. The plane to PNG, by now, is long gone… He needs to speak with immigration. They hash out a deal that my original ticket to Fiji (a week later, different airline) is giving me the right to board that flight now. They only have to check if my ticket is really valid. My stress level is rising, the check-in is already closed, the plane is supposed to depart in less than 40 minutes and I still have no boarding pass and my bag is not yet on the plane. I don’t want to stay; the next plane would be in two days only and I wonder if I should not just pay the roughly 200€ for another ticket. I talk to the immigration guys again. Suddenly, the lady gestures me to come over to the counter, she takes my bag and gives me my boarding pass.
I put my passport on the counter and tell the guy that I am probably not in his system as I did not pass immigration the day before. He seems unfazed, types into his computer and gives me an exit stamp. I am relieved as I sit on the plane. Fiji, the regional hub and superpower with a strong tourism sector, seems to be still open for travellers. The world has added 4,617 cases in just 24 hours and that day, the 11th of March 2020, the WHO Director-General finally declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
Confirmed worldwide cases of coronavirus (deaths) as of the 11th of MARCH 2020: China 80,908 (3,161); Italy 10,149 (631); Iran 8,042 (291); South Korea 7,755 (60); France 1,774 (33); Spain 1,639 (36); Germany 1,296 (2); USA 696 (25); Diamond Princess 696 (6); … Solomon Islands 0, Fiji 0
TOTAL: 118,319; OUTSIDE MAINLAND CHINA: 37,411
DEATHS: 4,292; AFFECTED COUNTRIES: 108