How conflicting travel guidelines during the pandemic show little progress
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – In early November, I flew to southern Africa to report a series of stories on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region, including one about the remarkable work underway to stem the emergence of new variants of coronavirus. My last afternoon there, South African scientists announced the discovery of the Omicron variant. A few hours later, I flew to Johannesburg to return to Canada.
By the time I landed for my connection to Amsterdam on the morning of November 26, the world had gone into panic mode and I was drawn into a chaotic, at times frightening, tangle of conflicting orders and rules that seemed more driven by afraid that medical science.
My first-hand journey through Covid response metrics has shown me that after two years we have yet to learn how to anticipate the behavior of viruses and people, or how to plan for it. We will need to improve in both cases if we are to navigate the next pandemic with fewer deaths and less suffering.
When my plane landed in Amsterdam, an air hostess informed us that passengers would need to be tested for Covid before we could continue our travels. Five hours later, we were still on the tarmac, the plane sealed, more and more travelers removing their masks.
My desperation over a missed connection turned to alarm when the pilot informed increasingly restless passengers that he could not get us food and drink because airport authorities were not “allowing” trucks. catering to approach the plane.
We were eventually driven by bus to an unused departure area, and within three hours, considering Covid testing. As the hours passed in the stuffy room where we were held, many even gave up on pretending to hide. None of the authorities attempted to apply the masking rules.
I was tweeting about the experience, and around midnight a Dutch journalist who had seen my messages contacted me to say that the test results were being reported by the Ministry of Health. Between my flight and another that arrived from Cape Town at the same time, 110 tests had been performed and 15 were positive, he said – an infection rate of 14%.
I looked around the room full of people, lots of screaming men and crying toddlers, and quietly started to panic.
It would take hours longer before I received my results. Finally, at 3 a.m., two tired-looking public health staff lined us up, asked us to hold our passports, one by one, and read the results from a database.
If our tests were negative, like mine, we had to sign a document in Dutch. The traveler who hastily translated me told me that I promised that I had a place to quarantine at home, and that I would leave the country to go there.
Seemed like a bad idea for public health, this pledge, but I had been awake for 42 hours, and I was desperate to get out of this room, so I signed and surrendered.
I was taken by bus to a dark and quiet section of the terminal. There I spent an additional nine hours frantically searching more and more for someone who could help me access a copy of my suspected negative test, without whom I could not continue the journey I had just signed. promise to make.
In the days following this chaotic detention, the Dutch airport and health authorities blamed the prolonged delays on the fact that they never anticipated such a situation and had no provision on how to control safely to the passengers – even though we were detained within weeks of the second anniversary of the first known case.
I managed to get access to my negative test at the 11th hour and flew to Toronto. My phone was filled with alerts about the new regulations for people arriving from southern Africa, and when I identified myself to a border officer as having flown from Johannesburg, he motioned for me to connect to a special line. A public health screening officer took my name, address, and temperature, and then fired me.
I walked away from her but stayed in line, confused.
“I have just been detained for almost a day with people we to know have Omicron, I said, almost begging. “You want to quarantine me!” “
She shrugged her shoulders. “I think you should go get your connection and maybe quarantine yourself at home.” Get tested on day 4. I have no further instructions for you.
It was the first of what was to be days of conflicting and confusing messages from health officials that left me struggling to figure out how best to protect people.
I flew to Halifax, my N95 tight as tight as possible, gratefully picked up a bunch of PCR test kits from a table at the airport, and made my way as quickly as possible to an Airbnb near my home. me. My children came for a strange reunion, standing in masks on the other side of the yard.
Over the next week, I received a dozen phone calls from federal and provincial health authorities. They said I had to quarantine for a full 14 days. Or that I only needed to quarantine until I tested negative on day 4. No, on day 8. Oh, fully vaccinated? Well in this case, no quarantine! I could self-isolate at home until I tested negative on day 4. Or 8. Or 10. No – despite testing I had to self-isolate at home until day 14.
For lack of useful advice, I stayed in the Airbnb.
On day 7, I missed my daughter’s 12th birthday party. A kind friend brought Thai food and beer and a portable fire pit, and we sat in parkas on opposite sides and had a heartfelt conversation aloud.
On day 8, the doorbell rang at 11 p.m. I didn’t respond as I assumed they were visitors for the second floor tenants (no one was visiting me, obviously). The ringing turned into clicks that became more insistent and louder. When I opened the door I found a policeman who asked for my name and told me she was there to do a “Covid check”.
I asked her what her instructions were for me – maybe she would get a glimpse. “We are supposed to continue monitoring you until December 11,” she said.
The next day another federal public health tracker called. She asked me if I had had visitors. I said I saw my children on the other side of the yard. She became distressed and told me that she should “report this”. Remote external visits were expressly prohibited.
I said no one ever told me that. (I kept my opinion, that it made no scientific sense and went directly against the conditions that would help people stay in quarantine, for myself.)
My instructions from the Canadian officials were confusing. But I have learned from emails and LinkedIn posts from other passengers on my flight how far we are from any uniform global response for travel. Those who went to the United States and Britain were leading their lives without quarantine. Those from Germany and the Netherlands were quarantined until testing negative on day 4.
I couldn’t understand how 18 passengers on the two South African flights had tested positive when we had to show a negative test to get on the flight. But then I learned, while I was locked up at the airport, that the pre-testing requirements are set by the destination country. South African airport authorities closely scrutinized the negative test Canada demanded of me, but passengers to the UK (and there were many) did not have to be tested to fly. A belligerent Briton in front of me in the last line in Amsterdam was told he was positive and taken away by a police officer.
Since Omicron began to be detected in Europe and the United States, British policy has finally been changed and the United States’ requirement reinforced for a test carried out a day before a flight. It wouldn’t have taken this debacle to create a basic test standard for safer flight.
I am not opposed to my trip being interrupted; I would have voluntarily quarantined myself in Amsterdam. I am, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone in this profession, a follower of public health measures.
But I am furious at the totally unnecessary risk the Dutch have put me and all the other passengers. After concluding that our flight was a health risk, they should have got us off the plane, handed out N-95 masks (and insisted that people wear them) and taken us to a place we could be. held separately from each other while they were making a plan.
I’m also frustrated that Canada has done such a lousy job communicating its rules – or using evidence to establish them. Today, Omicron’s circulation is accelerating rapidly across Europe, but only flights from southern Africa are prohibited.
Omicron’s discovery and the rapid transmission of critical information about the variant around the world showed how well the sophisticated scientific response to the pandemic was working.
But everything I’ve seen in the days since then makes it clear that we still haven’t got a handle on the messy human stages at all – and they may matter even more.