Travel in the time of COVID-19
Incheon Airport was nearly empty so distancing was visible, and I trusted that the Korean virus prevention guidelines would be strictly imposed
Travel in the time of COVID-19
By Priscilla Anne Matoto-Sznaper While most people probably prudently opted to stay put for the summer, my family and I took a leap in the dark and did the opposite. We used the home leave to return to the south of France and spent two weeks feeling that life was back to normal despite needing protective masks and proper hand hygiene. How could we have embraced this return to normal social life in a country whose daily confirmed cases was estimated at 1,500 in early August, as compared to the 20 cases of South Korea, our country of residence?
The biggest hurdle was the voyage involving airports and the exposure to fellow travelers coming from all parts of the world. As you might expect, we were complete with protective gear: extra masks, antibacterial wipes, alcohol spray, face shields, goggles and impermeable jackets. Did we use everything? Yes and no. Incheon Airport was nearly empty so distancing was visible, and I trusted that the Korean virus prevention guidelines would be strictly imposed. Our fears were on hold for the time being as we saved the face shields for CDG Paris airport, where a whole new ballgame awaited.
Onboard Korean Air, this 11-hour journey only had 90 passengers, giving each of us access to a row of seats — for me, the only upside of traveling at the time of a pandemic. When my giddy 5-year-old caught sight of the Eiffel Tower from her window, I was on vigilant mode knowing that CDG airport would be unlike Incheon.
The terminal where we were directed had no thermal cameras, traditional temperature checking nor medical questionnaires, simply mask-wearers (many of whom had their noses exposed), making it a perfect scene from a dystopian nightmare of the KCDC (Korea Centers for Disease Control). Since July, much to our relief, the French government had just made mask-wearing compulsory in all enclosed public spaces, but how serious was this mandate being followed? Several passengers onboard our domestic flight to Cannes had non-mask wearers or masks worn incorrectly, leading to several airplane announcements and reproaches from the flight attendants. Thankfully, the flight ended on a good note with the exit of passengers being done in batches to avoid overcrowding. Relieved that we were a step away from our destination, our last mode of transport was the taxi. The driver was maybe too considerate, inviting us to remove our masks inside his air-conditioned vehicle. While taking off his own mask, he said reassuringly that there was distance between us anyhow. Again, another no-no in South Korea.
Elle est belle la France (France is beautiful), and indeed she still was even amid COVID. The relaxed vibe in the south of France was the escape that I did not know I needed after months of ineffable pain and anxiety caused by the pandemic. From the outside, this resort town along the French Riviera looked as if life had returned to normal with the exception of masks and hand sanitizers showing the only traces of change. Cannes is driven by tourism and annual international events, such as the Cannes Film Festival. And with a pandemic like COVID leaving world economies at a major loss — France forecasts a $40 billion decline in revenues in the tourism sector for 2020 — it is no wonder that cities like Cannes are actively trying to reverse the crisis with boosted on-the-ground marketing initiatives and events.
This rapid return to “normalization” was evident. The beaches were packed with unmasked sunbathers and families. (Side note: We attracted many stares with our masks during our first visit to the beach) Several events were held at beachfront hotels like the Majestic. The popular children’s sailing classes — which we were too frightened to pursue this year — were visibly ongoing. Parking lots were reaching full capacity. There were the ubiquitous daily outdoor markets showcasing Provençal delicacies to antique treasures teeming with crowds. Rue d’Antibes, a shopping street, was congested all throughout the day. The queues in bakeries were long and the outdoor evening dining scene was bustling. With a nationwide estimate as of August of 1,500 daily cases, mask-wearing was only compulsory in enclosed spaces, allowing people to step outside unmasked, whereas in South Korea, it is unacceptable. However, as of this writing, the spike of cases reaching 13,500 is suddenly painting a different picture in France. Currently, in Marseille, public gatherings exceeding 10 people in parks and beaches are restricted, and an alcohol ban has been imposed starting 8 p.m. France 24 TV channel reported that even with a nationwide rise in cases, the French Prime Minister’s goal is to “avoid a general lockdown and succeed in living with the virus through social distancing, mask-wearing and ramped-up testing.” Sadly, this road to normalization, “in living with the virus,” comes at the expense of risking thousands of lives on a daily basis, and it brings me to vehemently question if this non-rigid approach is and (has been) really worth embracing.
With a nationwide estimate as of August of 1,500 daily cases, mask-wearing was only compulsory in enclosed spaces, allowing people to step outside unmasked, whereas in South Korea, it is unacceptable.
Speaking of rigid, our flight to Seoul was empty, giving us some down time before a four-hour rigorous COVID control at the airport — health forms to fill up, interviews with quarantine officers, temperature checks, downloading of a mobile tracing application — including designated taxis for travelers under quarantine. We each got tested, quarantined for 14 days, reported our daily self-diagnosis checks, and had a surprise inspection from a government officer. Believe it or not, even our trash remained quarantined (and frozen) with us. With utmost gratitude, South Korea!
Until next week… One big fight!