Evacuations are never easy. I learned that recently when an abrupt ban was announced on flights to and from South Africa, which I was visiting on a business assignment. The stream of coverage about the lethal proclivities of the Covid-19 Omicron variant induced worldwide alarm. The panic seemed more contagious than the variant supposedly is.

Not surprisingly, within the span of a single day last week, country after country stopped accepting flights from South Africa. Led by Britain, many Western nations not only cancelled all flights from South Africa but from its neighbouring nations as well. As could be expected, the firm I work for asked me to evacuate from South Africa ASAP, which in corporate parlance is really a poorly disguised euphemism for “immediately”.

A real-time exit

It was November 27, a lazy Friday. I was in the immensely picturesque sea-washed city of Port Elizabeth, on the southern shore of South Africa, when the news about this seamlessly multiplying new variant started hitting the headlines.

PE, as the city is popularly referred to, is relatively old world and remote. There are no international flights linked to any of the big airline hubs from where I could hop on a flight to India before the virus could rampage across South Africa. If a real-time exit had to be plotted, it had to be through Johannesburg, the country’s business hub.

But I was stopped dead in my tracks when the airline hubs such as Dubai and Doha decided to follow the Western nations and stopped accepting flights from the Southern African nations. My return flight ticket to Delhi through Doha became as useless as demonetised currency.

So, a great escape plan was charted out for me, involving a flight to Mauritius and there to India. But by the time I reached the airport, Mauritius had decided to cancel its flights to South Africa. I was literally all dressed and nowhere to go.

City Hall, Market Square, Port Elizabeth. Credit: Leo za1, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That is when Plan B kicked in. I would travel to Addis Ababa, from where I would take a flight to, and do a short stay in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. From there a flight to Delhi via Doha seemed plausible. I was hoping against hope that by then India would not close its doors to people returning from the beleaguered southern part of Africa.

But it was easier said than done. Given the concern around the rapidly gambolling variant, a slew of checkpoints had been installed at airports to screen for Covid-19 negative tests.

Beginning with Port Elizabeth, I had the apparatus testing the depth of my nostrils again and again. Given the level of alarm around the new variant and its unequivocal association with South Africa, governments set up a testing regime for travellers from Southern African countries, with practically one test in every airport.

The pain of the tests was not restricted to the probes in the nasal cavity alone – each involved sordid pocket pinches ranging anywhere from $10 to $100.

Flying out of Port Elizabeth. Credit: Dipankar Das

Visa power

Testing was one part, another was the visas to be secured for entry into the countries on my hastily drawn up itinerary. The security and the staff at the Immigration departments in various airports, never known for good soft skills, demanded to know why anyone would be applying for a $50 tourist visa or a business visa costing approximately $250 just for a day or two.

Immigration officials are aspiring third-degree interrogators who have undergone a course on the Art of Being Even More Difficult, I realised. But having once read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Make Friends and Influence People, I navigated my way through the bureaucratic quagmires. Eventually opposition melted and I gained temporary entry into Tanzania, long enough to arm myself with a rock solid RT-PCR report.

Perhaps in order to compensate for the ongoing ordeal my organisation decided to put me up in a pristine resort on the Dar es Salaam coast. The views were breath-taking. But when you are suspended between your temporary workplace and your country of residence, with no clear pathway in sight, the appetite to admire such vistas shrinks beyond measure, allowing perhaps a glazed appreciation of your picture-book tropical surroundings.

My short stay in Tanzania gave me an insight into a quite smoothly running country. Dar es Salaam’s modest roadways, incipient infrastructure and a general absence of pace in the ambience spoke of a rather unhurried, easy-paced, emerging economy.

A friendly taxi driver succinctly described the state of being in Tanzania as “peaceful but not happiness” – an observation that perhaps would comfortably apply to many countries in Africa and Asia as well.

The resort in Dar es Salaam. Credit: Dipankar Das

After a rather long wait, the much-awaited test report came. Armed with the report, the Indian government’s Air Suvidha all filled up (which incidentally is a breeze), I was all set to return to India.

Home, as they say, is where the heart is. As the flight touched down in Delhi, much of the anxiety eased in a known environment, where the intonation is familiar, you have the local currency lining your pocket and your phone is not on international roaming. It was good to be back home.

Lost lessons

Though the harrowing experience of country hopping, the multitude of tests and visa-linked appraisals lasted only five days, it left me quite exhausted. The uncertainty associated with Covid 19 has been written about ad nauseum, but even after a year-and-a-half, the uncertainty lingers without let up and every new variant takes an indescribable toll on our mental state.

Unfortunately, the decision-making around Covid 19 eventualities has been mostly knee-jerk and abrupt, be it around lockdowns or travel bans. Perhaps the uncertainty and inadequate awareness demanded quick decisions, but there is a cost that has to be borne by ordinary people, be that a poor migrant worker or a relatively well-heeled corporate traveller.

Would it be too much to expect decision makers to be a bit more sensitive about ramifications of their actions on many voiceless players in the act?

Dipankar Das is an executive who was in South Africa for a short assignment, when he decided to return due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.