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Urban Chat: Travel in the time of coronavirus

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, February 21, 2020  /  01:37 pm
Urban Chat: Travel in the time of coronavirus

A rendering of the coronavirus (COVID-19) (Shutterstock/Lightspring)

When the news of “some new virus in China” broke out in early January I glanced over it and took it as less of an incentive to visit Hong Kong for Lunar New Year. I moved on to new plans: Lunar New Year in Manado and the lantern festival (Cap Go Meh) week in Laos. I rummaged through my medicine cabinet for vitamin C, but basically wasn’t bothered much. 

When myself and travel mate Miss TamTam woke up on the last Sunday of January in Manado, Wuhan was in lockdown, while our media wrote that a Lion Air interpreter for a Wuhan-Manado flight was rushed from an unidentified hotel to a hospital for possible coronavirus infection. It could’ve been our hotel, for all we knew. Miss TamTam and I braced ourselves for flying home with Batik Air, the sister of Lion Air that might’ve shared a cleaning crew for all we knew.

As I tumbled into my apartment, a hospital-sized hand sanitizer and cautionary announcement from building management, organized hastily during the weekend, graced the lobby.

Between then and my departure to Laos nine days later, the coronavirus increasingly flooded the news and depleted Jakarta drugstores of surgical masks, hand sanitizers and vitamins. I had to rush to my pilates instructor’s go-to shop in Blok M to buy some masks and Echinacea. 

My travel mate this time, the Singapore-based Marta, said Singapore had run out of masks and sanitizers. On the other hand, Laos had direct trains across its border to China. We mulled over cancelling the trip, but we really wanted to see Laos during its supposed good weather. “We survived two weeks in India. A week in Laos should be OK,” we reasoned.

When I left for Vientiane through Bangkok in early February, the death toll was around 300. Virtually everyone in the three international airports I was at, except for many of the intriguingly carefree Westerners, wore masks.

I switched my usual sling bag for a tote bag filled with masks, high-dose vitamin C and alcohol swabs in lieu of travel-sized hand sanitizer I failed to secure. Stepping onto the aircraft, masked cabin crew greeted us. It felt a bit like entering a hazardous zone.

Travelers felt the tension, even if nobody uttered “corona” out loud. When someone coughed, people glanced. When a man onboard our vessel sneezed repeatedly everyone turned around, only to be horrified that he wasn’t wearing any mask (to his credit, he covered his mouth). 

The same man was with wife and three young children, the youngest strapped onto his wife’s back, none of whom were masked. I saw “School of Public Health” emblazoned on his laptop bag. I suppose he knew something I didn’t.

Although they didn’t report any active cases, the Lao government welcomed international passengers with four health professionals, hand sanitizers and flyers in three languages prior to immigration.

As we started to explore Laos, most tourism workers, including night market peddlers, wore masks. Marta and I went mask-free, but we religiously cleaned our hands with alcohol swabs after any excursion and before eating. Knowing Laos isn’t yet a hot destination spot, I wasn’t surprised to see the low number of visitors, until a hotel clerk told me that the occupancy rate had dipped noticeably.

Out there, the world went berserk. The death toll doubled to 600 as we arrived in Luang Prabang and broke the 1,000 level after I got home. Deaths outside China started occurring, as well as patients with no direct contact with China.

Cruise ships got quarantined. One was turned away multiple times before Cambodia opened a port. Singapore increased its emergency level to Orange, triggering a supermarket rush. Marta bought any masks she saw while I gave her my disinfectant soap before we parted ways. At Soekarno-Hatta airport, detailed paperwork from the Health Ministry awaited me.

Don’t get me wrong – we had a good time in Laos. We trekked to caves, waterfalls and animal sanctuaries. We took a sunset river cruise. We even saw a solemn ritual to close New Year festivals at a royal temple. But as the mysterious virus loomed large we inevitably behaved differently, shying away from roadside hawkers and allotting more sleep.

By the time you read this column it will have been 13 days since my return, and I’m pleased to report that I’m in good health. The coronavirus has claimed over 2,000 deaths, with Indonesians overseas reported to have fallen sick – crushing a widespread unscientific claim that somehow Indonesians are immune to a new virus nobody has had a chance to develop an antibody for.

Marta and I went ahead with our Laos trip, but the 20,000 cancellations since January for Bali alone, as reported by the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association, showed most people aren’t as adventurous.

London Fashion Week suffered from a drop of Chinese trade buyers. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the world’s largest luxury goods conglomeration that relies on the burgeoning Chinese market, revised its projections. 

The latest statistic showed new cases have slowed down, but there is still neither vaccine nor guarantee of the outbreak dying down. The Middle East was reporting its first coronavirus death as I wrote this column. I’ve scrapped my March travel plan, but how long can business travelers or the export-import industry afford to get disrupted? How long can the vulnerable tourism and hospitality market sustain the downturn?

As chilling as that sounds, traveling in the time of the coronavirus may just be a new reality.

And to think 2020 is still in February. Lord have mercy. (ste)

 

-- Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer
with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.

 

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