On the morning of March 17, four Korean students and I entered the desolate Jolly Grant Airport, Dehradun, welcomed by the few that worked there with glances of suspicion and disgust. It was 10 a.m., a time usually busy for the airport with no empty chairs and long lines, but these days, rarely anyone wants to travel, or go outside.
Everyone in sight, from the traveling monk to the lazy security guard, took a role in a bizarre dystopia of expressionless faces labeled blue mask, white mask, or black mask. We observed this trend from Jolly Grant Airport to Singapore Changi Airport to Incheon Airport on our 36-hour trip. Each hour passed with exhaustion and anxiety with the minuscule chance the chair we sat on or a passerby walking past leaving us with unwanted germs, carried COVID-19.
The Korean students were one of the last to leave the school, most having stayed back for Quarter Break, and after the announcement of the school shutdown, juggling the weighty decision of remaining or leaving.
Leaving would be a guarantee not to return to school regardless of the situation: foreign visas are suspended until April 15 – if the situation does not worsen – and a self-quarantine period of two weeks would leave only about a week of school to attend in the remaining semester. Staying back at school was a gamble, with the local outbreak of the swine flu and limited health care.
In hindsight, with the official declaration by the school to close its doors for the remaining semester, leaving was the right decision, but last week, in the pouring rain and dreadful clouds of Mussoorie, Korean students were drowned in rumors and uncertainty.
Korea is no safe haven, and we knew that.
Once out of India – a crowded bedlam which was beginning to dip its feet into the coronavirus waters – we would land back into trouble in Korea, which as of March 21 has more than 8,700 cases.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Once decided, the journey of returning back to Korea was no stroll in the park. No direct flight connected India to coronavirus-rampant Korea – with eight thousand cases in the country compared to India’s one hundred at the time – and the students picked a last-resort zigzag route with a layover in Singapore.
On arriving at Delhi Airport, I was confused.
Half of the people in the airport – regardless of being employed – were without masks. Those who wore masks had flimsy cheap blue ones, which are not effective and ironically may lead to more hand contact with your face. In contrast, in January, in Incheon Airport in Korea, it was impossible to see a soul without a mask.
The women behind the counters lazily glanced at travelers’ papers and worked at a snail’s pace as if to say in sheer irony, “the doctors get all the praise for working amidst COVID-19, yet I’m working dangerously in an airport with little pay and little praise.”
The masks stayed glued onto every passenger even in the airplane. A cough from someone set off like an alarm stares from passengers all around.
Singapore was no safe place, with its own three hundred cases, but showed more diligence with no person present without a mask. A hand sanitizer bottle was stationed at every corner. Some travelers ate in the food court with Armageddon-Esque hazmat suits and gloves; others wore glasses typical for a dangerous lab experiment. Nobody gave these people particular attention – maybe they’re hysterical and exaggerating the problem, or maybe they’re more prepared.
After more than 32 hours, we arrived at Incheon Airport to another swarm of masks. Luckily for our growling stomachs and tired legs, there was no special medical check on travelers. We did not even show the duly written health certificates from school. I was so relieved no more paperwork had to be done. We merely walked out. But maybe that isn’t such a good thing.
I arrived at my apartment, witnessing some interesting efforts against coronavirus:
It has been three days into my arrival, yet there is no sense of emergency.
Through my window, I see flocks of people leisurely walking on the streets under the weekend sunlight – of course, everyone is wearing masks. I visited the nearby mall anticipating the possibility of immersing myself in a cinematic post-apocalyptic scene from 28 Days Later, yet the mall was crowded as usual – of course, everyone is wearing masks.
Restaurants continue business as usual. Whether the restaurant workers are there for the passion of cooking or for the need of money is debatable.
It is more apparent when convenience stores have remained open, with college students working at the cashier, unable to risk their minimum wage for their health.
Carry on, no need for panic.
Jinho Yoon is the Managing Editor of The Woodstocker
Edited by Archita Aggarwal
Photos by Jinho Yoon