Traveling during COVID times
By Anna Robb
My two children and I made the trip from Australia to Hong Kong during the midst of the corona pandemic, May 4, 2020. Traveling during COVID times has changed the way we move around the world. Prior to COVID, I had done a plane flight every month for the last 2.5 years. Then I was grounded in Australia for 3 months as the entertainment industry screeched to a halt. At some point, I had to decide when it was safe enough and possible enough to return to my home in Hong Kong. Turns out the start of May was as good a time as any. Here is my travel journey.
There are currently only 3 flights a week from Sydney to Hong Kong operated by Cathay Pacific, so to begin our journey, we needed to fly from Melbourne to Sydney to catch the international flight. I had joined a Facebook group for people arriving into Hong Kong prior to my travel which housed extremely useful advice on the arrival process and how to prepare.
I applied for my permission to leave Australia despite the online information saying I was exempt. I had filled out my health declaration form for Hong Kong. I took copies of my Hong Kong ID and my kids’ visa page in their passports.
When we arrived at Melbourne airport, my father and I were super confused on where to drop me off as the terminal access was closed due to maintenance. Fair call, doing maintenance during a time of limited air travel, but there were no adequate signs and no one around to help so there was a bit of a driving scramble to find a way to access the terminal we needed. My friend had scored me some N95 masks from the pharmacy she worked at and the kids and I donned them once we got out of the car. Immediately my kids put up a stink about this, “It’s fogging up my glasses. It’s itchy!” Despite my prepping them mentally for this activity for at least 2 weeks prior, the complaints still came.
I was surprised that the check in counters and bag drops which require you to use a touch screen panel were not regularly being wiped down after use. All the supermarkets and public places that I had been to in the last couple of months had their sanitary processes sorted. It seemed that Melbourne airport didn’t. So after checking in, I used sanitizer on my hands. A process that was going to be repeated excessively in the following 6 hours prior to getting on our international flight. Security let me through with a bottle of hand sanitizer larger than the liquids usually allowed. I didn’t need to take my laptop out of my bag.
No shops, no food outlets were open, only a pharmacy. Two out of every third seat was marked “no access” for social distance purposes. In Australia, only around 50% of people were wearing masks. The majority of those who were wearing them, were ethnic of descent, elderly and children. I was also surprised that airport staff were not wearing masks. If I had a few hundred people coming past me every day, I would totally be wearing a mask.
It was a little ironic for the airport to be announcing over the PA to maintain a 1.5 metre distance between people and then pack them onto a busy flight. A flight where I was within 75cm of about 5 strangers. None who were wearing masks. But hey ho….
Upon landing in Sydney, again there were limited people around and nothing open. I had to get from the domestic terminal to the international terminal. Again normal pathways were blocked off and it was a pain in the ass to get two kids and a 3 months of baggage across there. Lots of walking, dragging baggage where no trolleys were allowed. Very inconvenient.
Police were stationed outside the airport. We had to show our passports and our flight tickets to be allowed in the terminal.
Then we needed to provide proof that we were allowed to leave. Lucky I had been granted the exemption online or I would have had to show proof of address in Hong Kong…. of which I did not have on me. A ten minute wait, then we got to check in to the flight. Before we could put our bags on the check in belt, Canberra had to be called (the embassy I suppose) to get the final permission to go.
We were advised to eat prior to going through security as nothing was open on the other side so we were directed to go to an area where a few cafes were open. No seating, standing only. I got my kids some croissants and a juice and I got to have my first coffee of the day 6 hours after I had gotten up…..
Security and boarding for the flight was normal. This time, however, they demanded my laptop to be pulled out of my bag and they confiscated my sanitizing gel…. way to go Australia for consistency…. not. To give them credit, after I gave them a piece of my mind about said consistency and the fact that they were endangering my kids by not letting me take sanitizer on the plane, they pulled out some small bottles to squeeze the gel into “acceptable” sizes. Tips for airport staff, don’t mess with a mom traveling alone with two kids during a pandemic.
I had hoped that the plane would be fairly empty so I could let the kids take their masks off, knowing that there would be considerable distance between us and other passengers. But alas, it was a relatively full plane. I allowed the kids to switch to the lighter surgical masks as a compromise. To their credit, they took this request to keep the masks on OK… My kids are seasoned travelers and I’m proud of their ability to adapt to changing circumstances during travel.
Now Cathay Pacific have their COVID shit together.
Staff wearing masks. No menus handed out. No magazines in the pockets. The plane smelled sanitized upon boarding. Sanitizer was handed out prior to each food service. All meals, drinks and dessert were handed out in one passing to minimize interaction. 98% of the passengers were wearing masks. We knew where we were going (because the only people allowed to fly to Hong Kong are residents and HK ID holders) and we know the expectations of the government when we arrive.
To Hong Kong’s credit, they have a great track record of management of the COVID pandemic. At the date of this article, they have 1041 cases and have lost only 4 people. They have an excellent data on where the cases are, how they got it and what they did about it.
The procedure for arrival was going to be long and we were at the back of the plane with a hundred or so people before us. So before I even disembarked, I prepared myself mentally for the kids’ complaints, the standing, the waiting, the “not knowing what is going on”, the Hong Kongness of paperwork and stamps and forms to fill. I told myself that this time tomorrow, I will be in my own bed…. so whatever happens tonight, we will take on the chin.
On the plane I had to fill out 9 pieces of paperwork. The first stop after getting off the plane was to check that I had filled all the forms. Then a section to check that I had downloaded the tracking app (thanks Facebook group for the heads up). Then a section to get info on how to use the tracking app. Then to a man that literally dials your phone number to check that you gave them the right number on the form. Then you are given your tracking device. Strapped to your wrist for the next 14 days.
After the tracking device a long wait, (almost an hour) to sit with some government representatives to fill out your COVID test information and get permission to go through immigration. Yep….. still haven’t gone through immigration…
We had disembarked at 9pm and it was around 11:30 when we got to go through immigration.
Our bags must have been cruising on the carousel for 2 hours before we picked them up. Once we had them, we were ushered towards a bus to take us to the Asia World Expo for our COVID testing. Again on the advice of the Facebook group, we had coordinated my husband to meet us at the bus boarding. We did an exchange. I gave him our heavy bags and he passed me a bag of food. Hadn’t seen my husband in three months and when I did it was for less than a minute.
Coached across to the Asia World Expo. We then did this comical bus jump where we got off the bus, threw our overnight bags on a trolley, got a tag for the trolley and then jumped back on the bus to drive to the other side of the building. Random.. but OK.
Another line, another 45 min to an hour wait. It’s a blur now. I don’t know how long it was. I do remember my son asking the time and it was 1:10. All the people around us in full hazmat PPE. At the end of this line, more paperwork verification and given our spit test equipment. Sat in a large empty hall meant for concerts and watched a dodgy quickly made government video on how to do the spit test.
Then proceeded around the corner with my kids to sanitize, put the cone over the vial that had some liquid in it, try to gather as much spit as possible and get it in there. I asked my kids to do it three times to ensure there was enough of a sample. Handed the samples in with the paperwork. Escorted to yet another hall, to fill out another form to get allocated a hotel room. Waited another 45 mins for our numbers to be called. Got to pick up our luggage, another 20 minute wait for a shuttle. Loaded on to a bus.
We all fell asleep for the 45 min bus ride to the quarantine hotel in Kowloon. We were given a government provided Chinese meal and a room key that could only be used once. Meaning ….. go in and don’t come out….. you will be called when you are allowed to leave.
Finally a bed! 2:35 am, 5.5 hours after disembarking the plane and 22.5 hours after rising to begin our travel in Australia. We were asleep within 15 minutes of stepping inside the room.
A full day of chilling in a hotel room. Called to freedom at 3:15pm. Sort of….
Now we are quarantined in our home for another 13 days. We need to do another spit test on the 15th May. We have the tracking devices connected to the tracking app on my IPhone. If I leave my house, I’ll have to do 6 months in jail. Honestly, I don’t mind the strict circumstances. Once free from the tracking device, Hong Kong is enjoying a lot more freedom than other countries right now and I will be able to enjoy those freedoms soon. Acting strictly and fast has its benefits. Hong Kong learned from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and was on top of the COVID response when it arose across the border in Wuhan, China.
Looking forward, the future of travel is kind of unknown. I don’t think the process I just went through will be around forever, but I also don’t think it will go back to what it used to be. The world will need to navigate a new norm. Testing prior to travel? Vaccination record (once we have one)? I hope we can get our stride back soon.
In the meantime, stay safe out there.
Also by Anna Robb:
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