On March 15 I returned to London from rural England for a week of post-operative physiotherapy, to see my surgeon on March 20 and to prepare for my return trip to Trinidad on March 23.
On March 11 Italy decided to shut down. On March 12 the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic – 20,000 confirmed cases, and 1,000 deaths had occurred in Europe.
Yet, apart from a severe shortage of hand sanitiser, paracetamol and rubber gloves nationwide, people were still carrying on as if the coronavirus had not started rampaging through the British Isles too. No one wore masks, which were then discredited. I remember distinctly that on March 17 the lines in the bank were long and nobody seemed conscious of a pandemic. Only the bank teller used sanitiser. A pet dog was being stroked by everyone while its owner engaged in conversation with other customers, who behaved as if it were a social event. I advisedly held my – vulnerable, gloved and masked – self apart.
I realised then that Britain was in for a nasty shock and I was pleased with myself that I had had the foresight to cancel my week’s therapy, as the prospect of unhygienic public transport was terrifying, let alone a therapist’s bed. Thank goodness I was about to leave, but not quickly enough, it seemed. I followed developments in TT and the UK and it became obvious that if I did not leave on the first available flight I would not arrive in TT before our border closed at midnight on March 22 .
The big problem was that British Airways was not playing ball. The airline company – the only one flying the Trinidad to London route – did not allow passengers to change flights without hefty additional charges and the very few flights before March 23 were booked up anyway. It was a fraught few days, spent mainly online trying to find a solution.
BA would have known that TT’s borders were closing on March 22 but it refused to cancel the flight of March 23. I was forced to purchase another return flight on Virgin that got me back to TT on March 20 via Barbados. It was one of the last flights to leave London for the Caribbean before the UK too closed its borders.
Not everybody could afford to buy a second ticket and those who had not been paying attention would all have turned up on March 23 for a flight that probably never left.
I now have a return flight to TT from London on BA which I have no idea when I will be able to use again. I also have a return flight on Virgin to the UK. Same story.
Never mind that the connecting flight to TT from Barbados on CAL had been cancelled and the trip home took two days to complete, at least I am at home to take care of the many matters that need my personal attention.
I tell this story because of the very divisive debate over whether TT nationals should be let back in at all.
Coronavirus did not appear overnight, and unless you were trekking in the outback or stuck on a cruiseliner somewhere on a faraway ocean, anyone away from home would have seen that things were spiralling out of control and would have attempted to take decisive action. Indeed, travellers have complete responsibility for looking after their affairs, especially at critical moments, but circumstances can make one unable to act in one’s own interest.
Even as a seasoned, resourceful traveller I could feel my options receding. It was a very frenzied time in which I began to feel hopeless, panicky. I am sure that there are people who did not understand or care to understand the real nature of what was going on, but many of the people I know who are stranded abroad did make attempts, like me, to get back in time, but failed because of the impossibility of getting to a travel hub in time from where they were located. Try getting back quickly to TT from Australia or from Japan, or parts of India when the whole world is on the move and with only five direct flights to PoS from Europe per week.
I am totally sympathetic to the thousands of Trinis marooned abroad without relatives to depend on, with depleted cash reserves, in ill health and unable to afford medical assistance. The stress must be tremendous. Brownie points earned by our government for its handling of the pandemic to date could be lost over its lack of transparency in the seemingly haphazard exemptions process.
Our health facilities may be limited but the government has a duty to protect all its citizens, including those stranded abroad.
So we must find a way to expedite the process of repatriation and save people from what feels like and is a form of abandonment, the prospect of community spread notwithstanding.