COVID-19 and traveling

After we had received the green light for our visa application, we immediately booked our flights to Sydney. The one-way trip was scheduled for February 15th. With a preparation time of two months for take-off, there was plenty of time for finishing work and arranging things such as insurance, selling the car, renting out our house and visiting family and friends in the Netherlands as well as Germany. It was also a time that had become more intense and uncertain for everyone due to the ongoing pandemic. In the third week of January, the COVID-19 figures for the Netherlands, Germany and Australia were as follows;

Germany: 2,088,400 infections, 2.51% infection rate, 7 day average: 14,135 new infections
The Netherlands: 940,106 infections, 5.49% infection rate, 7 day average: 5,480 new infections
Australia: 28,749 infections, 0.11% infection rate, 7 day average: 12 new infections

The differences in numbers between the three countries was (and still is) large. Because of its geographic location, Australia can be regarded as a huge island with the airports and harbors as the only and strictly controlled access routes. As we experienced they locked themselves up more than a year ago. The Netherlands and Germany, on the other hand, are located in the heart of Europe with the Schengen Agreement in force, the freedom of movement makes control of people’s movements considerably more difficult. It is practically impossible to put everyone crossing the borders of 28 Member States in a two-week hotel quarantine. In Australia, the hotel quarantine has been done rigorously and successfully since the outbreak of the virus. Different governments mean different regulations, but ‘shutting down’ a country also has its drawbacks. The globally connected society will, unfortunately, have to learn to live with the reality of this virus. Also Australia.

Cultural and historical backgrounds as well as confidence in the government play a role. I was in the Netherlands for a week at the end of January and on the way, in the car, I heard on the radio that a curfew had been introduced and that there were riots on the second consecutive night because of the restriction in freedom of movement. This limitation applied to everyone, but some apparently had a problem with it. The last time something like this occupied the Dutch was in the Second World War. The 8pm news even mentioned that at one point friendly football supporters (but they looked very much like hooligans) took to the streets to defend their town against curfew rioters—bizarre situation.

Another unusual situation involved more than 35,000 Australians who could not come home due to the strict travel ban. The media reported that Australians living abroad booked plane tickets and were then told they could not take the flight due to cancelations or a lack of space. Before they knew it, weeks or even months passed and the day of departure was still not in sight. The decision of the government not to allow Australians returning home was (and still is) very much resented by those concerned.

I am aware that despite our preparations and apparently right decisions, we have also been incredibly fortunate. Before we left, it was frequently a topic of conversation about the necessity of whether we should travel during a pandemic and whether we could endanger other people by doing so.

To us, this was not just a relaxing holiday where we lay in the sun for three weeks (a bad idea anyway). In addition to the adventurous part, we were aware that we were risking quite a bit. Savings, our jobs and careers, and leaving family and friends in hard times ‘behind’. Also, my wife had been pursuing this dream for many years, so it was just time to make the call. After approval of our visas, we also had 12 months to enter the country. However, due to the pandemic, the deadline was no longer applicable.

It can be cold in Berlin Kreuzberg, us getting tested, Yes – only one flight for the day, emptiness at BER Airport, and me trying to get some sleep at Doha Airport.

Flight cap

Commercial flights were regularly offered around the time we booked our flights. Short-term availability was indeed limited or you had an unlimited budget at your disposal. In addition, we had learned through the media that passengers with more expensive tickets (business class, etc.) had a greater chance of boarding. From January 15 to April 30, a flight cap applied for Australia, which stipulated how many incoming travellers per state could enter via the airports:

Australian Capital Territory 0*
New South Wales 1,500 (from February 15 ~ 3,000 passengers per week)
Northern Territory 0
South Australia 490 (from February 15, 530 passengers per week)
Queensland 500 (from February 15 ~ 1,000 passengers per week)
Tasmania 0
Victoria 1,120 (from February 15 1,310 passengers per week)
Western Australia 512

Imagine an airport like Sydney handling more than 400,000 international passengers per week in the old times. A drastic decline and with that the possibility to enter the country (* means not accepting passenger arrivals)

On February 8, we were told by Qatar Airways that our flight had been rescheduled to February 24 instead of the 15th. Plus that we were flying to Adelaide instead of Sydney. Speaking of flexibility. In the email was written;

At Qatar Airways, we continue our commitment to getting you safely where you need to be. The passenger list is continually assessed and based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requests, connecting flights, booking class, party size etc.

We had no idea how heavy the different criteria weighed on us, but we thought that upgrading our tickets would increase the chances of success (read: being able to fly). In my conversation with customer support Qatar Airways was unable to confirm this thought. We eventually opted for an upgrade and had made a second ‘backup’ booking for April 1. Just in case.

Some time later we were told by an acquaintance, who knew about visa matters, that we had to fill out an online Australia Travel Declaration before entering, so that the government could organize the quarantine. This form came in addition to a National Travel Permit at the State level. It was also a requirement that we could provide an Australian address when completing the forms (an extra security check to trace us in case of infection etc.) I had reserved an Airbnb in Adelaide for the time after our mandatory quarantine. Now we also had a permanent address.

After filling in the necessary paperwork, we requested the mandatory Corona tests. Besides final household chores, we also kept a close eye on the Qatar Airways website to see if our flight was still on “confirmed”. To be on the safe side, I called them once again to check the situation. Everything fine so far, but immediately after the call, the option to upgrade the 2nd leg of our trip (Doha to Adelaide) came in. In a normal situation, we would not consider this, but the situation was after all rather unusual and so the choice was quickly made.

Departure

My wife’s parents wanted to take us to the airport and stopped by for breakfast. A final time freshly made bread from Markthalle 9 and strong coffee from the Späti around the corner. The ride to the new airport Berlin-Brandenburg went smooth as we arrived at an almost deserted airport. The architecture of this long-term project reminded me of the style that can also be seen at the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Clean lines and a sober but accessible structure. Seemed timeless to me, but with a lot of trend-sensitive advertising. Few people were en route in the deserted airport corridors and empty shops but the parking spaces for the planes were well filled. Airport employees and security personnel sat on the benches, where normally the travellers sit, having lunch or making a phone call. 

As usual, I had to take off my 1 KG Meindl Borneo boots at the security check and after the standard procedure, I made a rather pointless comment that it was not very busy. “Today it is all not too bad,” the security officer said cynically. We both knew it was extremely quiet and the near future didn’t necessarily look brighter. One of his colleagues chuckled. Not really a head start for this troubled airport project.

In transit

The flight was comfortable. As well as the attention we received from flight attendants dressed as doctors ready for surgery, complete with PPE aprons, gloves, masks and safety glasses. “What a service” I said “don’t get used to it” I was told in the seat next to me.

When we arrived at Doha Airport we had to wait about 20 hours for our connecting flight. Qatar Airways seemed to be doing its utmost to deal with the virus. This was already the case on the plane. On arrival, we were transported by bus to the airport building. In the bus a video was shown in which airport personnel were busy disinfecting and polishing different surfaces and spaces in, around, and at the airport with cloths, mop or with a spray. An intense 10+ minute cleaning video but very convincing.

It was a long time waiting with little or no sleep, because the lounge was full, as well as the only airport hotel and the sleeping pots that you can rent by the hour for way too much money. The straps of my medical mask were also slowly starting to cut into the back of the ear cups. I decided to take a different model for the next 13-hour flight that was a bit looser. Advertisements everywhere for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, while news reports poured in that 6,500 migrants have already died during infrastructure and stadiums construction. There are calls from some countries to boycott the event, which would be an appropriate signal.

When we passed the gate, my wife found out on Insta that for the year 2019/2020 we were among the 2,436 people with a 189 Visa. We counted 60 passengers for our flight QR914. These were not only people from Berlin but also other international flights. So the 490 seats per week for international travellers available to South Australia shows how little capacity there was at the time. Travelers to Australia had to compete for the seats internationally..

From Doha, we flew over the Arabian Sea and the southern part of India, towards South Australia. As I peered down from the window, we flew over the Southern Great Victoria Desert and Northern Nullarbor Plain with its light brown and dark red colours, gliding past below me. About 1,500 km from Adelaide. I realized that I had slept for at least 8 hours without getting a stiff neck.

Arrival

After a hard landing it seemed we were the only travelers to arrive and we were met by people wearing PPE aprons, gloves, masks and safety glasses. New face masks were distributed. Recorded sounds of Australian fauna, which I could not place, could be heard in the background. Nice detail on arrival at this somewhat outdated airport. The suitcases were already on the luggage belt and as soon as we walked to customs, we were asked by an airport employee for our Incoming Passenger Cards. After another 10 meters, we were met by a friendly police officer from the customs before we could walk through the door into the arrival hall. Under the watchful eye of the police, we were the first to walk out into near-freedom. More police, SA health operations, sisters and people from Adelaide Airport were all ready for the flow of 60 passengers and the disinfection pumps were ready for use every few meters. A coach was waiting, the suitcases were taken and the first 20 passengers boarded.

Still shaky from the 40-hour journey, we slowly drove into Adelaide’s Friday evening rush hour. One of the first neighbourhoods that stood out was China town, apparently because of the many restaurants with both English and Chinese translations on the signs and the amount of Asian-looking people on the street. After crossing some residential areas we arrived in the Central Business District (CBD) of Adelaide. The—fortunately—unimpressive CBD doesn’t have nearly as many skyscrapers as other Australian cities. But it does have very beautiful parks that immediately catch your eye upon arrival. Adelaide seemed to have retained quite a bit of its charm and we couldn’t wait to find out.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s