The outer area of Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, where finding space to move with your trolley in the pre-coronavirus era was a challenge, appears much bigger than usual and is relatively quieter too.
For anyone who has never been to the Karachi airport, on any given day before March of this year, you would think there was a festival going on; families on picnics, friends on a long drive and children dressed to the nines could all be found either seeing someone off or waiting to greet them with flowers.
The throng of well-wishers — that sometimes comprised everyone from family members to neighbours of the passenger — is noticeably smaller now.
As I get out of the car to catch my flight, I do a mental check of everything I need to travel internationally: passport, ticket, face mask and a Covid-negative test (taken a maximum of 96 hours before departure).
At the entrance to the departures area, there is a queue but no distancing. I decide to stand a few steps behind the person in front of me — better to be safe and hear the person behind me impatiently say “madam, thora agay” than to be sorry.
An airport staffer stands on one side of the entrance, spraying people with a disinfectant — I’m not sure how effective that is though as he is only getting everyone’s right side.
Anxiety kicks in as I put my luggage on the conveyor belt of the scanner, with people queuing up and reaching for their bags without any physical distancing. The level of anxiety also depends on how you’ve been quarantining. For me, this was the first time being in a large public space and in close proximity to other people since the coronavirus outbreak, so I had anticipated some degree of uneasiness.
Getting past security, however, has been never been easier; the female security staffer wears a mask and gloves, and this time around there’s no awkward pat-down in a cramped booth. Instead, female passengers are told to simply walk through the scanner gates and proceed to the airline counters.
I start walking towards the Emirates counter and my anxiety now melds with irritation as I see many people without a face mask, including some members of the airport staff.
There are, however, clear markings on the floor for physical distancing and posters by the Civil Aviation Authority all over the terminal encouraging people to take precautions against the virus.
The flight information board, which would normally be full and would keep changing to accommodate multiple flights, does not flicker as there are only two outgoing flights scheduled at this time.
The Emirates staff members are all wearing masks and I see them trying to enforce distancing. And while the distancing among some of the passengers does not last as the line moves, at least no one is arguing with the airline workers.
The man checking in ahead of me has a mask dangling from his ear, not boding well for my anxiety or irritation. When it’s my turn to pass, I ask the official at the counter why he couldn’t ask the man to put on his mask or refuse him service. He doesn’t have an answer but assures me, saying “I’ll personally make sure he puts on the mask before his flight”.
Great. Because why bother with safety and precautions in our own country.
The lab in Karachi where I had my Covid-19 test done — as required by the airline and the UAE government — had told me that they would send the results directly to the airline. However, I'm told to show the hard copy of the test result. Different destinations and airlines have varying rules regarding the virus; as of now, even if you’re only transiting in Dubai, you must have a negative test result.
Once past immigration at the Karachi airport, I start walking towards the gates and find most of the shops as well as lounges to be shut. The security area leading to the gates has some new fancy looking body scanners for men. Women are again spared the pat-down and only have to walk through the regular security scanner.
Every other chair at the gates is clearly marked ‘Don’t sit here’ in both Urdu and English for distancing and most people have left them empty.
The bookshop near the gates, where I had killed time before many a flights, has wrapped up its business for good. Some food kiosks are open, some seem to be temporarily or permanently shut. I head to one of the coffee kiosks still in business and where both the staffers are wearing a face mask.
The chatty server laments how people refuse to follow “simple operating procedures” and then tells me some disheartening stories of travellers who paid exorbitant fares because they needed to travel in emergencies.
“Between the government and people failing to follow SOPs, God only knows what will become of us and others (he signals to the closed kiosks) who are struggling because of the virus.”
When boarding begins, the queue starts forming, with some in it maintaining enough distance and others not really bothered. Though, virus or no virus, at some point, there should be actual research on why we tend to crowd around even when there is so much space?
At the gate, the staff checks everyone’s temperature along with their boarding pass. Among the passengers, most seem to be returning residents and workers. Families with children and infants are fewer than usual on this route. While the airline only requires face masks at the time of boarding, a few passengers are also wearing face shields. I see at least three passengers with disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits on.
The Emirates crew onboard is in PPEs and donning face masks. Passengers, even those travelling together, are seated with one empty seat between them. Again, not all airlines are implementing the ‘one seat empty’ policy; so if that’s important to you, check ahead with the airline. For instance, Turkish Airlines has not changed its seating arrangements.
Once seated, the first thing the Emirates crew hands out is the travel hygiene kit. This comprises face masks, gloves, a hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes. Then the crew distributes health forms issued by the UAE government to declare if you have any symptoms and where you’ll be staying, etc.
The pilot announces that the food and beverage service has been ‘modified’, which turned out to mean two Danish pastries and a fruit cup in disposable packaging plus tea/juice service — not really a big adjustment for a flight that barely takes up to two hours.
Once the flight lands, whatever little distancing was observed earlier is also done away with. It’s the same sight that I’ve seen for over 25 years on the Karachi-Dubai route; everyone is up on their feet as soon as the plane stops moving and crammed together in the aisles, waiting to disembark, never mind basic distancing in a public space.
Unlike many other countries, Dubai is open for business. And not just open, Dubai is inviting tourists to visit and compelling residents to return. A glance at Dubai International Airport's Terminal 3 — one of the busiest in the world before Covid-19 struck — makes it clear, however, that people still need more convincing.
At the concourse where we land, the Duty Free and other shops are closed and passengers are much fewer than usual.
As we make our way to passport control, airport staff starts telling people to get in line, make sure the form handed in the plane is filled out and that arriving passengers download the Dubai Covid-19 app on their phones.
The lines lead to counters with staff in PPE. When it’s my turn, the person at the counter asks me to take a seat, and takes the form and my passport. Still unsure as to what was the purpose of this counter, I ask him and he confirms my suspicion, saying he’s prepping my documents for a (free of cost) Covid-19 test. “Please don’t leave your accommodation until you receive your negative test result,” he instructs.
A little further ahead, there are cubicles set up with medical staff outside each. One of them takes my paper, asks me to come inside the cubicle and swiftly conducts a Covid-19 test — my second in less than 96 hours. I’m told I’ll have the test results within 24 hours (I got mine in around 15).
I want to emphasise that the process I went through to arrive in Dubai did not mean that I was free to travel all across the UAE without additional Covid-19 tests. Each emirate in the UAE has its own set of rules — so much so that anyone who wants to enter the emirate of Abu Dhabi even from within the rest of the UAE must present a negative coronavirus test at the border.
Similarly, Karachi airport also had an added step upon arrival when I returned. Right after you disembark the plane — and are generously sprayed with a disinfectant — the aviation authority has set up counters to make sure everyone has filled out the medical forms properly before proceeding to passport control.
As for distancing, again, it’s all about how YOU maintain the distance, whether others do or not. Simply put, stay a few steps behind.
My journey and trip was thankfully safe and smooth but I’d like to stress that at this time, travel only for necessity — as I did — and not leisure. As tempting as it might be to avail offers by hotels and airlines (aimed at reviving pandemic-struck sectors), having to undergo multiple Covid-19 tests and taking the risk of contracting the virus is not worth it.
All photos by writer
Zahrah Mazhar is a news editor at Dawn.com, with a penchant for travelling and travel writing. Find her on Instagram @zeeinstamazhar
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