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World News

Turning the clock back on coronavirus

date

29-Mar-2020

London: The clocks went forward an hour this morning across Europe.
 
How I wished they had turned back months instead, before this pandemic struck. Once before I flew on a day when clocks were put forward, I hadn’t realised it at the time, and missed a flight at Madrid Airport.
 
Not today. I am here, at Heathrow Airport, normally the second busiest in the world in terms of passenger numbers. Today, you could swing a cat and all of the members of its extended family here without fear of hitting anyone. It’s the fear of catching something that’s the worry.
 
Getting off a long flight from Jakarta, where were have been squeezed together on economy class, as soon as we land we are reminded to social distance – keep a distance of 1.5 metres apart.
 
At a stopover, I watched a German woman get angry because there were others in a queue that were encroaching in that what is now considered to be mandatory personal space. t’s an anger that should be viewed more as frustration - she too had come off a flight where all 300 passengers or so were confined in an aluminium tube and were breathing the same HEPA-filtered air for six or seven hours at a time.
 
There will be a lot of that in the coming weeks as tighter restrictions are placed on all of our movements. As someone I know on social media commented: “Stay six feet away or be six feet under”.
 
I am returning to Ireland and there, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has tightened regulations further, with people only allowed outside under the strictest of circumstances. I have kept in touch with friends in Spain, a nation that has been shaken to its core by this virus and one where the death toll and infection rate has surpassed that of China, and where 832 people died overnight.
 
Are you like me where you become a little numbed by the sheer scale of numbers, the daily death tolls, the rate of infection? It seems hard to fathom, where authorities give statements and deaths are by the hundreds.
 
They call this a war. These are now our casualty lists from the front, where so many are killed each day in a toll that only increases, where the infected are our lists of wounded.
 
At Heathrow, those of us entitled to use the European Union and United Kingdom passports’ electronic gates are urged to go so. The UK Border Force officials want as little contact as possible with the few travellers passing through their frontier.
 
I follow the instructions and the gates stubbornly stay closed - and for a fleeting moment I fear that I may be sent back to Indonesia having been refused entry for fear I carry this coronavirus. In truth I just carry a desire to get home, to cocoon, to lock away the world and to wake up and realise that it is all a bad dream. It is not.
 
I am told to join a line to see an immigration officer in person. I try to pass my passport to the middle-aged South Asians lady in the booth. She visible recoils.
 
“Keep back, Sir,” she instructs with a look on her face that borders between distain, fear and anger. “Are you aware of social distancing requirements?” Yes, I am, but I can hardly hear what she is saying. I am quizzed on how well I am feeling.
 
“Fine,” I say, even if my stress levels have suddenly increased since my dealing with her. She shakes her head in disgust when I say that I have been to Indonesia for three weeks, and try to offer that it was planned and began before all of this happened. No, I don’t know if I was in contact with sick people. I think that I have met quite a few sickos down the year but now isn’t the time for humour. Just humility.
 
I explain that I am in transit, heading to Dublin and that I don’t intend to spend any time in the UK. And yes, I am aware of the rules now in force. I am a journalist, I explain, and have been writing about nothing else for weeks now. She hands the passport back. “Use the hand gel,” she orders. I do, and cover my passport in gloop in the process.
 
There are ten luggage belts in arrivals here, only two are in use and the baggage takes much monger than normal. Few baggage handlers for fewer flights, but at least I am on the home run now.
 
Transferring from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 in Heathrow is a surreal experience. I have a London Underground tube carriage all to myself. If you been to London, ridden the tube, or indeed know any city’s underground or mass transit system, having a carriage to yourself is unreal. But these are unreal times.
 
All of Heathrow’s restaurants and most of the duty free shops are closed - only a pharmacist and a newsagent are open. A coffee cannot be bought for love nor money. The air corridor between London and Dublin is the second busiest in the world. On a regular day, there are at least 50 flights in each direction daily. But this is not a regular day, and who knows if there will ever be a regular day again sometime soon.
 
I am upgraded to business class. So is one-third of the flight which consists of 17 passengers.
 
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe
 

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